Paradiso by Francesca Scanacapra
Graziella is a girl growing up in the small Italian village of Pieve Santa Clara. She is much loved by her parents, her aunt, and is well known to all the other villagers. It is October 1944, and the peace is shattered by the arrival of German soldiers. Their actions rips Graziella’s world apart, though she does not fully understand the danger the villagers are in. Sent to a convent for her own safety, the small girl soon discovers more of the challenges of life in a country at war. This is a lovingly written story of people coming to terms with the aftermath of war in a place where there should be a sufficiency of food for people who have worked all their lives. It is a place where the unfairness of war is visible in missing men and boys, and those who have returned are sometimes scarred by their experiences.
Graziella tells tales of hunger in the convent “I was not unhappy about being at the convent because I understood that my parents sent me there out of love, but I was frequently unhappy about being cold and hungry.” This is a gently written book about the experiences of growing up in a village where there was affection, even if not much food at times, where a man was able to scratch a living despite his disabilities, where there was fun to be had in the small events. It also speaks of the power of the Catholic church to condemn, even if it is only personified by an old weak-willed man who has run out of ideas to keep his church full and standing. A memoir written as a novel, this is a charming and engaging book that I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review.
It is a frightening start to the book when Graziella is taken with the other small girls in the village into the darkness in an open truck. The nuns are generally well disposed to the girls, but they are homesick for their families and worried about what may be happening. On their return they discover that not much has changed, and even Graziella’s disabled father is able to find some work. Her own adventures reflect the life of the village, the boy who is generally shut out for his filthy appearance and difficulties in communicating, is a surprising helper in a traumatic time. Rita, the friend left behind because of her poor health, is a playmate who misses her father who left to fight, and is an ally in difficulties. A visit to a local estate gives Graziella a new view of the world and she meets a person who will have an effect on her. It is a touching moment when she encounters a relatively wealthy woman who is beautifully dressed and considers whether she owns more than one pair of shoes. As injustices happen in a small community the reader is drawn in, as well as when every opportunity for celebration is taken.
This is a positively written book of a girl’s life in a village with a charming tone despite the challenges of daily existence. It has some of the magic of family stories, and here they are presented with feel love and in a very engaging style. For a first novel it is very promising, and I would love to read further tales from this author.