Early one morning in Rome in October 1943 the occupying Germans are rounding up Jewish families from the ghetto. Chiara Ravello witnesses this and a fleeting moment of contact with a mother results in her instantly becoming the guardian of seven year old Daniele. This is the premise behind Virginia Baily’s second novel. Her first “Africa Junction” won the 2012 McKitterick Prize which is for a debut by an author aged 40+ (I didn’t know about this prize- so there is some hope for me still!). Here is a writer with a pedigree and a powerful idea for a novel.
There are two main time frames and Baily does give away quite a lot early on. The wartime story is set alongside a narrative strand set in 1973 where Daniele has been missing for ten years and an English teenager makes a discovery which brings her over to Italy and to Chiara. For me, the most potent part of the novel is the relationship between the woman plunged into caring for a child in danger and the small boy plunged into a situation he can barely understand. An escape into the hills where Chiara’s grandmother lives provides beautiful writing and a fascinating set of relationships. Chiara is also caring for her older sister, brain-damaged through severe epilepsy and the connections between the characters here really comes alive. The tension of harbouring the Jewish boy is palpable.
For me the more modern strand is not as captivating. Chiara is too accommodating, the teenager Maria too demanding and the ends are tied up too neatly. It lacks the impact of the war thread and from that we know too much about the characters to be surprised by outcomes. This is a good, solid summer read where the pervasive heat of Rome might make up for our unpredictable weather.
“Early One Morning” is published in July 2015 by Little, Brown/ Virago. Thanks to Netgalley for providing this copy for review