Two captivating books on the Italian experience of WWII

June 24, 2022

This article was written for Annabel & Grace, which is now part of Rest Less.

I am on holiday in Corfu and this time I have managed to read quite a few books which has been bliss as reading is a passion for me. Holidays are the only time that I use my Kindle as I normally prefer to hold a real book. However, the Kindle enables me to download a few and if I don’t enjoy one book I can switch to another. I have a policy of reading up to page 40 and then if I am not completely engrossed in the story, I move on. Life is too short etc.

However, the following two books, Beneath a Scarlet Sky and The Villa Triste had me hooked on page one. They are not new books and have been about for some time.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan

There are not enough superlatives for this book. This is a true story based on the experiences of one 17-year-old Italian boy, Pino Lella, during the Second World War. It is set in and around Milan and gives a detailed history of the war experience in this city. It was complicated – Nazis, Black Shirts, Partisans. The bravery of Pino is quite extraordinary firstly helping refugees escape across the Italian Alps to Switzerland and then, when he turned 18 years old, his life as the driver for General Leyers and spy for the Allies. Leyers was the second-highest Nazi in charge of the war in Italy. He answered to Albert Speers but he was also very close to Adolf Hitler.

How Mark Sullivan, the author, came to hear of Pino and his exceptional story is a tale on its own. But we, the reader, must be grateful that these individual stories are being discovered and told. They humble, inspire and teach us never to forget what humans are capable, both good and bad. The pain that humans are capable of inflicting on other humans will never cease to amaze us all. It would appear that history is repeating itself in Ukraine but inflicted by a different tyrant.

Please read this book, I cannot recommend it more highly – it has everything from heroism to true love, great acts of courage and the sheer terror springs out of every chapter. It is currently being made into a film with Tom Holland playing the lead and Amy Pascal producing it. And it is free on Kindle!

The Villa Triste by Lucretia Grindle

This book made a perfect summer read and whilst not a true story it is based on facts. In some ways, it was a relief to read a historical novel after reading the true and often tragic story of Pino in Beneath a Scarlet Sky. The Villa Triste, not to be confused with the book, Villa Triste, is extremely well researched and links the past with the present through a murder. The narrative is split between the `then’ story set in 1943-4 told through the diary of a young Italian nurse and her younger sister, and the `now’ focalised through the police investigator dealing with the murder of an old man.

Mussolini has been deposed but the Fascists are vey much in control in cerrtain areas while the Partisans are taking ever more dangerous risks. The two sisters become Partisans and take ever more dangerous risks helping Jewish families to escape the Nazis.

An excellent mix of history and mystery that keeps you captivated until the very last page.

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