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Mussolini's Island by Sarah Day
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Mussolini's Island

by Sarah Day

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Sort of slow, a bit like wading through pond weed. I think it is because the characters are so constricted by their situation, that they seem to have virtually no choices, except maybe to express their sexuality. Or making that choice leaves them with no others.
But beyond that, the islanders are forced to cooperate with the prison and the acts of defiance by Ellen seem to have such little effect.
It interests me in Italy's war/social history, without really telling me any more background. ( )
  kk1 | Nov 24, 2017 |
Mussolini's Island

''It is a war,' Emilio said quietly, as he always did. As though, somehow, that made everything right. As though, in war, people were allowed to become someone else entirely.'

In Sarah Day's debut novel, 'Mussolini's Island', it is 1939/1940 and war with other nations looms, but there are more immediate concerns for Emilio and his lover, Francesco.

What's it about?

Love. Betrayal. Desire.

In Fascist Italy, Mussolini is insistent that men must be men and women must be women. Gay and bisexual men are considered weak and unable to fight, and are blamed for weakening Italy, particularly in relation to the infamous defeat at Caporetto, the source of a deep wound in the nation's pride.

In Catania, Sicily, Police Chief Alfonso Molina decides these 'degenerates' are a 'contagion' which must be removed from the local population. Local police use informants to gather the names of the young men involved in homosexual acts and send them to a small island, San Domino.

Isolated on a strip of land that can be crossed end to end in one hour and forbidden to speak to the local population, the young men - referred to as "arrusi" - have little to do with their time but seek to discover who informed on them, while local guard, Pirelli, tries to found out which of them murdered a policeman back home...

Meanwhile, a young girl who feels equally trapped on the island is drawn to the prisoners despite warnings from her parents. Elena begins to pin her hopes for the future on handsome Francesco, but her fury when she discovers the truth about his nature leads her perilously close to a dangerous act...

What's it like?

Quietly enthralling. Deeply sensual. Almost heartbreaking.

This is a fascinating insight into a dark period in Italy's history. Day shows us men fighting for their lives in a war fought between state and self, in which the sense of self itself is threatened.

Francesco is confused, aware that he should repress his desires but ultimately unable to do so. He is determined to protect his mother, who has already suffered significant upheaval, but unwilling to leave his lover, Emilio. As the story develops over two time periods - life on the island and life just before the island - our understanding of his character evolves and we see the incredible pressures of society acting upon him and his cohort.

The slowly developing love story is carefully handled, with the potential for betrayal always visible as Day inches closer to the denouement.

In her keenness to anchor us in each time frame, Day can be a touch repetitive, reiterating Francesco's key memories again and again, but this helps show the power they have for him.

Final thoughts

This is a gradually evolving insight into the pressures of living in a state that insists you are unacceptable and offers only one vision for the future. There are some key revelations towards the end which give a sense of closure, though we don't know what will happen to the arrusi back in Catania.

There's a real sadness permeating the ending which helps make it convincing, despite one or two rather unlikely coincidences.

This is a story to savour, taking your time to get to know Francesco as you learn more about his past.

Strangely, the characters who have lingered with me since I finished reading are Pirelli, man without a role, and Elena, trapped on the island. Perhaps it is as simple as not knowing what Francesco's future holds, whereas Elena and Pirelli's futures seem likely to be equally as confined as their lives to date.

This is a story which will stay in your mind for a long time after you finish the last page. ( )
  brokenangelkisses | Mar 4, 2017 |
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Seductive, moving and full of insight into the desperate acts committed by individuals when fighting for their lives, this is a novel of sexuality and desire, and the secrets we keep locked within us. Francesco has a memory of his father from early childhood, a night when life for his family changed: their name, their story, their living place. From that night, he has vowed to protect his mother and to follow the words of his father: Non mollare. Never give up. When Francesco is rounded up with a group of young men and herded into a camp on the island of San Domino, he realises that someone has handed a list of names to the fascist police; everyone is suspicious of one another. His former lover Emilio is constantly agitating for revolution. His old friend Gio jealously watches their relationship rekindle. Locked in Spartan dormitories, resentment and bitterness between the men grows each day. Elena, a young and illiterate island girl on the cusp of womanhood, is drawn to the handsome Francesco yet fails to understand why her family try to keep her away from him. By day, she makes and floats her paper birds, willing them to fly from the island, just as she wants to herself. Sometimes, she is given a message to pass on. She's not sure who they are from; she knows simply that Francesco is hiding something. When Elena discovers the truth about the group of prisoners, the fine line between love and hate pulls her towards an act that can only have terrible consequences for all.… (more)

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