Love shines through story of vicious Italian World War II battle

Review: Vivien Horler

The Sound of the Hours, by Karen Campbell (Bloomsbury)

Google the Battle of Garfagnana and Wikipedia gives you a dispassionate description of a brief, devastating battle around Christmas 1944 among villages and towns in the Tuscan Alps. There are references to generals and tanks and casualties, to Allied and Axis soldiers.

But there is nothing about the people who lived in those villages, whose lives were interrupted and then overturned as the tide of war swept through their ancient stone towns, woods, valleys and hills.

A family from the village of Catagnana, in the hills above the town of Barga, are front and centre of this wonderful novel by Karen Campbell, which takes its title from the bells that ring out from the region’s churches, sounding the hours.

But the story opens in Scotland’s Paisley, where a very old woman is on her deathbed. Granddaughter Torri is helping to look after her Nonna, who came to Scotland with her husband after the war, joining a sizeable community of Italians who settled in Scotland from the late 19th century.

It’s late, and Torri is helping her Nonna to sip some tea, when there’s a knock at the door. An American stranger is there with Torri’s uncle.

And from there we swoop back to the Italy of autumn 1943, where the people of the mountains are holding dance to celebrate annual chestnut festival – but in this time of war most of the dancers are women. Seventeen-year-old Vita is looking out for Guiseppe who has returned to Italy from Scotland, hoping she will be one of the few girls dancing with a male under 40. But Guiseppe, who has links to the partisans, doesn’t come.

At this time Italy is split into two, with the German and Italian troops in the north, and the king and Allied troops – American, British and South African – in the south. Vita’s own family is split too – her mother supports the fascists, her Scottish-born father the Allies.

Vita wants to go on studying, but to her disgust her mother finds her a job as a housekeeper down in Barga for the Catholic Monsignor.

For years the war has been far away, but now it draws closer to Barga as the Germans try to resist the Allies’ relentless northern sweep.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, men are being shipped off to war, including Frank Chapel, a young black man who has enlisted with the United State’s segregated 92nd Infantry Division, the Buffaloes.

The Buffaloes are sent to the Lucca region of Italy, and Vita and Frank meet. They are felled by an instant attraction to each other. Neither has met anyone like the other before. But the vicissitudes of war mean their meetings are rare and snatched.

With the Germans and Blackshirts still in the Barga region, life becomes more difficult. The local Jewish family flees. Then Vita’s father, known for his anti-German views, is arrested, and soon afterwards her mother disappears. With her sister Cesca sheltering with their grandmother in Lucca, an angry and bereft Vita is alone in the family home in the mountains. Thanks to her rage at the Germans, her growing love for Frank, her attachment to Guiseppe, and her intimate knowledge of the of the mountain terrain in which she’s grown up, she too becomes involved with the partisans.

And then in the depths of winter, on December 26 1944, the Germans and Italians launch the Battle of Garfagnana in an effort to repulse the Allies. In Wikipedia’s dispassionate prose: “Result: Axis victory.” Both sides lost around 1 000 people, killed or missing. Towns are turned to rubble, ancient bridges blown up.

Karen Campbell writes beautifully. Her setting of the mountains and valleys, forests and golden stone villages makes you want to head for Barga. The love story between Vita and Frank is tender and entirely compelling – one of the charms of which is Vita’s Scottish-accented English. The suffering of war, the refugees, the shortages of food, are compelling described. And the battle scenes are devastating.

Not only all that – Campbell works in a terrific twist at the end, so that you have to go back to the beginning and re-evaluate everything you’ve been assuming. This is an entirely satisfactory read.



One thought on “Love shines through story of vicious Italian World War II battle

  1. David Bristow

    Both my father and his brother, one in artillery the other armour (tanks), fell in love with Italian women during this time. Both promised to return to bring them back to South Africa, neither did – but each is its own story. And here I am. Gotta read this one, I have a similar one on the boiler …


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