“She put her family in danger. She would risk her life to atone for it”

  • Book: The Girl with the Scarlet Ribbon
  • Location: Cornwall, Florence, London
  • Author: Suzanne Goldring

Review Author: [email protected]

Location

Content

Over the past months, I have been privileged to read some truly outstanding books, from an amazing newly published catalogue of WWII storylines, written by some very talented authors. Each time I have felt compelled to comment that my latest encounter, has probably been the best in genre to date, although I have enjoyed them all! But ‘hold the front page’, because this book has just taken things to a new level for me personally.

The strong and unique storyline, a dual timeline family saga, set across two countries, the complex and troubled characters, the evocative sense of time and place, all beautifully brought to life through some personally meaningful paintings, and emotionally charged narrative and dialogue, always told with true heart and genuine feeling. So, if you have your tissues at the ready…

Socially and culturally, this storyline doesn’t pull any punches about the harsh life lived in a 1940s Florence, which is under German occupation, where every strata of society is affected to varying degrees and no one escapes the wrath of an army flexing its military muscle. Jews, or people from other secular races, regardless of gender or age, are being rounded up, often beaten for the merest show of passive resistance, then herded onto trains heading for who knows where. It is also the opportunity for a new reign of terror from within the City’s own borders to be sanctioned and employed freely by the occupying forces. War has the power to divide, as much as it does to unite, hence we witness the rise of Xenophobic gangs of ‘Black Shirts’, who are infiltrating groups of residents who have previously lived harmoniously side by side, pitting one against the other, encouraging neighbours, friends and family to report those of a different race or religion, who are then rounded up, tortured and either ‘disappeared’ or passed over to the German controlled authorities, for a fee.

Young teenagers, Gabriella and her brother Riccardo, together with their parents live in this state of constant fear, for whilst the family themselves are upright and respectable citizens, the ‘guests’ who share their attic and basement rooms are not, and whilst the family condone their activities to help the resistance movement, this does place them all in increasingly grave danger. The family endures the angst of constant food shortages, so when a young and naive Gabriella is ‘wooed’ by the persuasive daughter of family who seem to want for nothing, and the charms of a young and handsome man, with the promise of extra food for the family table, her heart inevitably rules her head, with almost devastating consequences. Riccardo, who has been physically weakened by polio, has an altogether more fragile personality, is highly strung and mentally frail, so when he is led to believe it is his actions which have placed his parents in such peril, his mental health deteriorates even further, leaving him tortured, scarred and dependent on his artistic skills for his sanity and the ability to express his emotions. Ultimately, both young people will prove their stoicism and bravery to survive, but at what personal cost!

Fast forward several decades to London and Cornwall 2019. Sadly Riccardo, by now a well renowned and successful artist, has recently passed away, leaving a wife, Isobel and a daughter, Sofia. In the throes of trying to organise an exhibition of her Father’s paintings, whilst calming a widow who is angry and far from grieving, an emotional Sofia decides that the strange final request of her father should be fulfilled, which for the first time sees both she and her mother heading to Florence, the place of Riccardo’s birth. Once there, their itinerary is set in stone by Riccardo, including a visit to his sister, Gabriella, who still lives in the family home and whom neither Isobel nor Sofia knew existed, as she and Riccardo were estranged. However they are hoping she has some answers to the many questions they have about Riccardo, both him as a person and the meaning of his paintings.

Gabriella isn’t at all what they were expecting her to be like and she fully understands the anger her brother might have evoked in his wife, with his controlling ways. However, as the story of their childhood unfolds, even Isobel is moved to tears on discovering the true reasons Riccardo painted with the fervour and ferocity that he did, as the only way he knew how to control his tortured and broken mind. With Gabriella’s story reflecting those of each of the paintings, what each one represented, why none of them had ever been given a name and what had happened to the mysterious missing canvas #16, her own sense of profound shame and guilt also becomes apparent, as does her longing for forgiveness, something her brother had been unable to contemplate, right until the time he took his anger to his grave.

Those are the barest bones of this well structured, highly textured, multi-layered and completely immersive storyline, where the dual time strands are woven beautifully together to flesh out the life of a tragically broken man, and the contemporary coming of age story of a daughter discovering her family roots and events, which had shaped the man her father had become. Together they form a richly crafted, powerful and grippingly intense narrative, which is fluid, seamlessly told through short, well-signposted chapters and highlight a genuine strength and resilience in the face of adversity, of loyalty, a sense of doing the right thing and fearlessly fighting for the cause against a common enemy. Compelling and profoundly touching words conjured up a truly visual and evocative sense of time and place and I could imagine myself in the Florentine marketplace, standing shoulder to shoulder with my fellow partisans, holding back the tears as public and fatal retribution is meted out by the enemy on another innocent compatriot. Then, many years later, walking around the art gallery in London, alone and in silence, taking in the atmosphere of the story told by a myriad of paintings, each a cameo of a moment in time which was just too painful to put into words.

Author Suzanne Goldring affords that same attention to detail and and visual inclusion, to her characters, no matter how small a part they play in the whole. They are well drawn and defined and whilst not all are easy to identify with or show empathy for, the overall dynamics and synergy between them, makes them completely investable, authentic and genuine in their individual roles. As a cast, they encompass the complete spectrum of complex human emotions, from the unreliable, duplicitous and manipulative, to the raw, passionate and vulnerable, and they have all been afforded a strong voice with which to tell their individual stories and direct the chain of events.

Looking back dispassionately when I had finished my journey with this book, I could only come to the conclusion that there really were no winners in this generational saga. Even though the story had traversed many decades and Riccardo had even crossed the ocean in a bid for freedom and peace of mind, none of the protagonists seemed able to escape the thoughts that dominated their waking hours, nor the visions of the terrible things they had witnessed, which were locked in their heads when they closed their eyes at night. So many damaged lives and too many wasted opportunities to ever afford peace of mind. There was no forgiveness or lifting of the burden of guilt and with Riccardo locking the experiences away in a place where only he could find them, no one saw past the facade he created, to offer the help and solace he needed to set himself and all those who cared deeply for him, free. However, after listening to Gabriella’s story, there seemed to be a palpable sense of relief, the gentle sigh and release of a long-held breath, the sudden lifting of a burden of guilt and the forging of genuine family friendships.

What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who can fire my imagination, stimulate my senses and stir my emotions. Whilst for me personally, this book had the power to evoke so many feelings, I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor probably the next, so this really is a journey you need to make for yourself and see where it leads you!

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