The Good Italian by Stephen Burke

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The Good Italian by Stephen Burke

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A touching, incidental/accidental love story set against the starkly contrasting pre-WWII conflict in Ethiopia and Eritrea. This novel may have started as a film idea but now has 'potential literary prize winner' written all over it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
ISBN: 978-1848549142

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Shortlisted: Romantic Novel Awards 2015 - Historical Romantic Novel

Enzo is an Italian living in Eritrea, part of Mussolini's new Italian empire of 1935. In charge of the quiet Massawe Harbour he leads an equally quiet life, trying to adhere to gentlemanly standards; being the good Italian. His friend Salvatore, a Colonel in the occupying Italian army, thinks Enzo should live a little and have some fun with the local women, just like his peers. Enzo isn't so sure but decides to engage a local cook/cleaner - see how it goes. The streetwise Aatifa gets the job, both she and Enzo being surprised by things that weren't in the job description. Meanwhile Mussolini has plans for Massawe that will change Enzo, Aatifa (and everyone around them) forever.

The talents of screenwriter and novelist don't usually coexist in the same person. The disciplines are different and the screenwriter who can create a story from directions and dialogue doesn't always cut it when trying to share the envisaged storyline via prose. People who can, like the late, lamented |Bryan Forbes come along once or twice in a generation. It's therefore an honour to introduce you to this generation's example, Stephen Burke. The Good Italian may have started as his great movie idea, but, while he's waiting for it to be developed, he's transformed it into a sublimely beautiful book.

Stephen has no problem evoking Mussolini's Eritrea. The Italian expats there, both military and civilian, ensure smooth governance and live an elitist, peaceful, lifestyle as a reward. Indeed this may be an outpost of one of history's most tyrannical dictators, but Enzo and his companions are people we don't recoil from.

The Harbour Master himself is an engaging everyman, trying to do the right thing by homeland and adopted domicile but 'the right thing' is a very thin tightrope to walk. Salvatore, on the other hand, finds it easier to take more advantage of the perks (putting it delicately). However, the Colonel is just as sympathetic and engaging; as the novel progresses we understand him more and ache for him as he's forced into a corner over a particularly difficult dilemma.

The love story is a joy. Indeed we know that the straight talking Aatifa and the reserved, hopeful Enzo will fall in love – it's in the book blurb – but we can't see how it can happen while retaining credibility (especially as we learn the first of Aatifa's secrets). Stephen choreographs seamlessly though, creating a relationship we both believe in and desperately want to succeed.

This may well be a story about love but it's not Mills & Boone. The love is as delicately heart-warming as the eventual military conflict is brutal. The tender moments are juxtaposed against a harsh world in illogical disarray. Indeed, this is by no means 'women only'; there's nothing girly about the bloody battle scenes or indeed some of the gasps twists and turns that go right through to the end.

So what makes a good Italian? Enzo is pretty sure he knows at the beginning but, by the time we close the novel for the first of many reads, previous standards and ideas are ready to be rebuilt. As with all of us, he is what life's journey makes him and in Stephen's hands, this is one heck of a trip.

I'd like to thank Hodder & Stoughton for providing us with a copy for review.

Further Reading: We aren't going to apologise for being predictable recommending this guy as his book is just as great as Stephen's. Yes, we recommend The Soldier's Story by Bryan Forbes.

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Booklists.jpg The Good Italian by Stephen Burke is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books 2014.


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