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Novel set in Rome (a marriage of smoke and mirrors)

2nd January 2014

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The View from the Tower by Charles Lambert: novel set in Rome.

Another cracking novel from Charles Lambert that transports the reader to Rome, the everyday Rome that often only the locals are ‘privileged’ to experience (it could be, however, not so much a privileged as a mixed blessing, read on). Mix in Italian politics, the wider Roman family, some manners, morals and mores, and you have a snapshot of the life of one marriage, full of intrigue and deception, set over the period of one week, early June 2004.

Helen, originally from the UK, is married to Federico di Stasi and, as such, also has to contend with his ‘patrician’ family, to wit father-in-law Fausto and matriarch mother-in-law Giulia. Helen, together with Federico and their mutual friend Giacomo have a history that binds them all, going back to Turin in the late 1970s, the era when terrorism was ripe and spreading its icy grip across Europe. The Red Brigades, a vanguard paramilitary organisation, was at the height of its power, attempting to revolutionise Italy through armed struggle. It was this group of combatants, of course, who were behind the kidnapping and murder of the politician Aldo Moro, an event mentioned in the novel; at the point in their lives, the three are on the fringes of illicit activities, and it was Giacomo who ended up in prison for a shoot-out at a bank, in which a guard was killed.

The book starts out with the killing of Federico, on his way to work in his ministry car. It is a massive event that naturally shapes the lives of all the characters. Essentially this is the story of how Helen comes to terms with the impact of his death. She begins to examine the bigger picture of not only their joint life, but also the dynamics of life within Federico’s seemingly rather machiavellian family; Helen observes how Giulia increasingly asserts her authority, whilst her husband Fausto seems to crumble. On the fateful day of Federico’s assassination, Giacomo had arrived from Paris with his new wife and was due to have dinner with Helen and Federico that very evening. In fact Federico was sourcing some Stilton for Giacomo when he was killed. A connection? A coincidence? Over the next few days Giacomo goes on to be a stalwart supporter as Helen learns to manage her new situation, and her suspicions around Federico’s murder begin to coalesce.

Helen starts to trawl through both the past and the present – she thinks back to ascending the tower in Turin, where Giacomo took both her and Federico individually (it is the view from the Tower that gives the book its title). She chillingly remembers Giacomo’s words of how the individual has to be sacrificed for the common good. With that memory comes the dawning realisation that then and now are irrevocably fused. How enmeshed they were then as a friends back in Turin in the ’70s, and how things have certainly shifted in the interim, but how the past has not really been put to bed. It lingers into the present. Even the examining magistrate turns out to be the son of her favourite student from her Turin days, when she was an English teacher at Fiat. It seems she can never escape the past.

Fascinatingly, the main characters have all maintained a very young feel, almost as if they are still the people they were of their youth in the 1970s. And Mother-in-Law Giulia is in her 80s, yet still feisty and scheming, and seemingly pretty agile (there is hope for us all!). They all give off a lot of energy which is contagious.

The things I love about Charles’ writing are the great style and the little vignettes that pepper the prose, whether it is the nugget of description of Helen and Federico’s dream house, seen from their train compartment; or descriptions of that typical italian marble used for flooring which is “.. a sort of mottled marble, like one of those fatty salamis cut into slices and squared off into tiles” (perfect, I can visualise it now!); or the road to Ostia Antica, the Via del Mare with its dappled light and fast cars, and which is deemed to be the most dangerous road in the country. When you read Charles’s work, you just KNOW you are in Italy!

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