*I received an arc via Bookbridgr in return for an honest review*
Mussolini’s Island by Sarah Day
Francesco has a memory of his father from early childhood, a night when life for his family changed. From that night, he has vowed to protect his mother and to follow the words of his father: Non mollare. Never give up.
As Francesco is herded into a camp on the island of San Domino, he realises that someone must have handed a list of names to the fascist police. Locked in spartan dormitories, resentment and bitterness between the men grows each day.
Elena, an illiterate island girl, is drawn to the handsome Francesco. Sometimes, she is given a message to pass on. She’s not sure who they are from; she knows simply that Francesco is hiding something. When Elena discovers the truth about the group of prisoners, the fine line between love and hate pulls her towards an act that can only have terrible consequences for all.
This novel is captivating and completely and utterly immerses you in the location of Italy and the second world war era. The fascism is not hidden, played down or secret. The fascism is real, raw and noted on every page. What would it be like to be a gay man in 1939, Fascist Italy? This novel invites you to firmly place yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. This is the story of Francesco Caruso and his time on the San Domino island, intermittent camp.
The novel opens with a quote from Benito Mussolini’s doctrine of fascism 1932. At that moment you become aware this author has done her homework! The historical accuracy is massively on point and the author deserves huge respect for investing in her research so deeply. The story begins on 20th January 1939. The proposal for the confinement of ‘pederasts’ and the reasoning being, their sexual degeneracy, links to venereal disease and ‘danger to society’. It is quite shocking in 2017, to hear these terms coined towards members of the LQBTQ community.
But this is also why I think novels like this are so important, to highlight the history.
The suffering the LQBTQ community has withstood, in its fight for equality.
The novel jumps between two locations and timeframes. We have Catania, prior to Francesco’s arrest and what initiated his detainment in the intermittent camp. Also the modern day location of San Domino island, where he is being held. But someone on the island of San Domino is watching the boats arrive, with curiosity.
That someone is island native Elena.
When the prisoners arrive they are informed of the rules to be inflicted upon them. They must not form any public meetings, speak to locals or voice any political opinions. They are given secondary, derogatory names. Francesco is given the name of Femminella, which means feeble woman. They are taken to a dormitory and informed they will work for four Lire a day for their food and necessities. They are warned, any breaking of rules, will be met with punishment.
With the final scene of a gun being shoved into Francesco’s mouth……………..
“There was no room any more for pacifists, for weak, feminised men”
There is a wealth of characters amongst the 22 detained men. I really wish they had been explored more and we as the reader got to know more about their backgrounds. Elio Duchessa is infuriated at his detainment and denies that he is a homosexual. But Francesco, recognises some of the faces in the crowd. Friends Arturo and Marcello are present. But Francesco longs to see the face of his lover Emilio, who has been missing sometime.
Elena tries to digests what she witnesses, as she watches the young men disembark from the ship. She notices her father as one of the guards (Carabinieri) and realises this is the new job, he was talking about. One man stands out in particular to her, due to his beautiful smile and that man is, Francesco. When she witnesses her father whipping one of the prisoners, with great malice. She becomes intrigued to what they have done and why they are here. Later when the director comes to tea, at Elena’s house she learns that one of the men is a murderer.
It will be her father’s duty to discover which one…………
The men assemble in the dormitory, trying to come to terms with their sentences. They are also desperate to uncover who is the rat. For someone must have given the authorities a list of names. The speculation, suspicion and accusations amongst the men is rife. I could completely understand their need to know who is responsible for adding their name to the list. The fear injustice and unfairness of their treatment is fully explored. This novel is very clever in its approach to the sensitive topic. By interweaving the Francesco’s past with his present, we learn his full story.
The men are aware of the very limited ways they may leave the island. They begin to plot an escape and realise they have nowhere to go to. Then Francesco spots Emilio amongst the men and the whole plot takes a huge turn. The men are reminded at every turn, how they are a contagion and a stain on society. They are threatened by the guards to inform on one another. The guards desperate to learn the name of the inmate who killed a police officer.
“Man is only man by virtue of the spiritual process to which he contributes as a member of the family”
This novel had me firmly hooked. I was eager to learn what will happen to the prisoners. Who is the betrayer? Who is the killer? When we discover more about the murdered police officer Rapetti. It only serves to leave me with more questions. Rest assured all your questions will be answered. You will discover all the secrets so tightly held at San Domino. This novel is packed full of betrayal, secrets and lies. But yet it is also a beautiful story of love and the sacrifices we make for those we love so deeply. I also note that all sacrifices, in turn bring consequences. It is emotive, thought-provoking and educational.