The Golden Hour
My recent Roku obsession has been Island at War. Sadly, this British TV series was only one season long, but what a season! Dealing with Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, this gem of a show captures the horrors of being invaded by a foreign power. As the citizenry settles in for a very long war, they learn just what it means to be a subjugated people. There are executions, imprisonments and narrow escapes.
In a land of plenty there comes near starvation from rationing; a bit of pork becomes a rare treat. Dissent is met with harsh punishment. Fraternization is met with hostility by those whom you call neighbor. Everywhere you turn is the enemy – both foreign and domestic. This is war for those who are no longer fighting.
1944 Tuscany, Italy is also a land invaded by the German Army. The citizenry quickly realizes that their once allies are perfectly willing to treat them with great hostility. For young Giovana Bellini, the war is an interruption of all that should be important to her – school, fun and romance. Instead she finds herself aiding the sisters of her parish in running an elementary school for snotty youngsters. Not a fan of children or education, Giovana finds herself fascinated by German officer Klaus. Klaus and several other offiecers share the building with the school and he quickly becomes her obsession. She knows he is the enemy but something about him draws her in. She steals a picture of his wife and child off his desk and takes it home so she can memorize what they look like and learn more about the man to whom it was sent. When she winds up falling asleep with the photo in her hand and crumples it beyond repair, she finds herself confessing to Klaus her feelings. They plan a romantic encounter that is disrupted by one of the nuns just in the nick of time. Giovana is forced to call a halt to their romance by family and church.
Giovana bounces back amazingly fast. Her brother, a local resistance fighter, asks for her help and she joyously complies. Sure it’s dangerous, but that’s part of the fun! She begins to gather medical supplies and food for the partisans. Then her brother asks her to help a badly wounded fellow soldier. Marco is someone he had known at school and whom he is happy to fight beside, but as a Jew, Marco adds another layer of danger to the everyday terror faced by the resistance. Giovanna is charmed by the handsome, witty Marco and soon finds herself devoting every moment to ensuring his survival. Will the two be able to survive the war, the prejudice opposing their union, and the barriers set up by their opposing cultures?
Had Giovana been born in the 50’s she would have been one of those boy crazy girls whose parents tiredly considered locking up till she turned eighteen. She can no more see a man than consider him for a lover it seems. She spends much of the novel being led by her heart (technically her libido) as she does all she can for whomever happens to be her current love interest. At one point she steals medication to keep Marco alive, with little concern for the two men who loose their lives as a result. Before the war began, she was barely aware of her Jewish neighbors. Once she meets Marco, the prose of the novel suggests their fate becomes a matter of great concern for her. Technically, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Giovana doesn’t help dozens of Jews into hiding. Marco is her obsession, not the cause. I have no doubt that had Marco’s surly brother been placed in her care, Giovana would have had no problem letting him die of infection, nor would she have become so devout regarding the need to hide them. But once she develops a crush, she is devoted!
It wasn’t just the character of Giovana I struggled with. The convenient kindness of Klaus, who at best owed her courtesy and who could not have been faulted for harboring some resentment, felt patently false to me. At the start of the novel he seemed to be full of the types of foibles besieging us all – a mix of kind and stern and faithful and loving contrasting with lustful and opportunistic. As the book progresses he becomes a two dimensional caricature living only to serve the plot. The two cooks who take over the food pipeline for the resistance could easily have been the most interesting characters of the novel, but we get to spend no time with them because we spend it chasing boys with Giovana. In fact every time the plot seemed to be moving towards something deeper, it yanked itself back via the primary character.
Novels of young girls maturing during the war years are not a new type of literature. 1973’s Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Greene brought the war home to us and questioned our beliefs regarding the enemy. The fabulous The Book Thief took us inside the Third Reich itself to show us love and life in the worst of times. This novel is simply about a silly, immature young girl finding men who admire that in a woman. I don’t, and so I can’t recommend this book.