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Book review: <i>A Thread Of Grace</i> by Mary Doria Russell

The Second World War was a bit confusing if you were in Europe. Sure, it was fine for those countries that weren’t actually occupied or at war, but it was bloody difficult for everyone else, running around listening to rumours about who had capitulated, who was on what side, and, if you were one of the unfortunate refugees, which new group of people had been ordered to kill you. A Thread Of Grace works its way through the harrowing years of the Second World War in Europe, and focuses particularly on the contribution of the Italian people supporting and hiding the fleeing Jewish community.

The story

A Thread Of Grace follows the stories of three sets of Jewish refugees, a couple of families of Jewish Italians, a collection of other Italians from various walks of life, some Catholic priests and nuns, a Brit, and some Germans, and their complex, bloody, and often tragic progress through life in Italy during the Second World War. The Jewish refugees are fleeing from place to place to find safety and shelter, and end up in various parts of Italy. The Jewish Italians have their own problems... they can pass for non-Jews, but what do their consciences tell them to do? To rebel or to hide? The Catholic Italians have their own agendas... most of which involve thwarting the Nazis, Republicans, and Communists at every turn. The priests and nuns are less involved with their religious affiliations than keeping everyone safe (as it should be). And the Germans... some of them are solid believers in the cause, while others are less sure.

While this isn’t the kind of book I would buy for myself (not being a huge fan of World War Two literature personally, having overdosed on it at a tender age), I did find the perspective and the stories quite interesting. Firstly, I liked it because the emphasis of the story seemed to be the Italian Catholics and the little-acknowledged part they played in helping and hiding Jewish refugees. Because many WWII narrations about Jews emphasise solely Jewish suffering, A Thread Of Grace gave the whole thing a new dimension. Not only were the Jews living, surviving, and being people (often novels about Jews tend to strip them of their humanity unwittingly by emphasising death too much), but the stories of others were interwoven in. It was quite complex but turned out to be an excellent storytelling device, and there was the added bonus of lots of intrigue, double agents and, of course, mercilessly killing people off (you know, it happens in war. There aren’t too many happily-ever-afters).

The style

Mary Doria Russell’s writing style is quite visual, and she handles the complexity, intrigues, and tragedies of war with style and compassion. The reader feels for every character, and Russell manages to portray the intensity of human emotion and the shifting alliances and desperation of people in wartime. Most of her characters are likable and understandable, and she doesn’t go in for happy endings which is also good. I only had three problems with the writing, which were: Russell writes in the present tense, which is really very annoying. I know it’s supposed to give a sense of immediacy, but I hate reading historical fiction as though it’s happening now, because it isn’t. So occasionally, I would read a present tense sentence and get shocked out of the reading experience by it, which I doubt was the desired effect. Secondly, I thought that the final section of the book, set in 2007, was a little unnecessary. While it portrays the long reaching effects of war, I found it didn’t flow on nicely. And, thirdly, I sometimes get a bit put off by constant language changes. Russell was showing her prowess with the knowledge of a couple of phrases in various languages, but I find this only works if the book is supposed to be set in English. However, this book was set in a variety of languages, and this just made her odd phrase here and there downright confusing when you were thinking “Right, so these guys are speaking Austrian? And why is that Italian in there...”. It looked a bit like we were having a display of versatility more than a meaningful contribution to the story line. Other than those things, it’s a good book.

Who is this book for?

Anyone who actually likes historical fiction would like this, particularly the kind that delves on a personal level and still manages to portray the political as well. And it’s a nice thick book—it would make a good gift.

In short

Title: A Thread Of Grace
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 0449004139
Year published: 2005
Pages: 426
Genre(s): Historical fiction, War