The Garden of Angels
The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.
When a Jewish classmate is attacked by bullies, Nico just watches – earning him a week’s suspension and a typed, yellowing manuscript from his frail Nonno Paolo. A history lesson, his grandfather says. A secret he must keep from his father. A tale of blood and madness . . .
Nico is transported back to the Venice of 1943, an occupied city seething under its Nazi overlords, and to the defining moment of his grandfather’s life: when Paolo’s support for a murdered Jewish woman brings him into the sights of the city’s underground resistance. Hooked and unsettled, Nico can’t stop reading – but he soon wonders if he ever knew his beloved grandfather at all.
David Hewson is a former journalist with The Times, The Sunday Times and the Independent.
He is the author of more than twenty-five novels, including his Rome-based Nic Costa series which has been published in fifteen languages, and his Amsterdam-based series featuring detective Pieter Vos.
He has also written three acclaimed adaptations of the Danish TV series, The Killing.
He lives near Canterbury in Kent.
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This story drew me in more and more as I kept reading, and I especially enjoyed Nonno Paolo’s story during the German occupation of Venice as told to his grandson through a series of written notes that he handed over one at a time from his hospital bed.
Nico, the grandson, has recently been suspended from school for a playground ruckus in which he stood back and allowed the school bully to attack another schoolboy. Nonno Paolo is furious that Nico did nothing and just allowed the bullying to go ahead and has second thoughts about handing his story over to Nico as a result, but is determined that Nico’s father is not the right person to read the contents of those envelopes. Persuaded by Nico to let him read the notes, Nonno Paolo hands them over and waits for his grandson to return to visit before continuing the process, checking how his story is coming across to the teenager but without giving away any details of what is to come.
Nico gets drawn into the story completely, learning how the Germans began rounding up Jews as Mussolini effectively became Hitler’s Italian puppet. The story deals with villagers who help the Germans, with clergy who refuse to do so, and with the harsh conditions people are forced to live in as the Germans enjoy the best of everything.
Nonno Paolo, barely an adult at the time, has recently lost his parents, both being shot by Germans as they sought new clients for their weaving business. His father’s last encounter left them with a job that has to be completed on a strict deadline, but now Paolo only has himself and Chiara to complete the delicate work required. To add to the tension, the delivery destination of the finished products leaves them in no doubt that the items are to be used as part of a German glorification effort.
Faced with what seems like an impossible task, he is then asked to hide two Resistance Jews – siblings, one of whom is injured – who are being hunted by the Germans. What follows is the struggle to get the job done (else face the dire consequences), and to keep the brother and sister hidden, which is no easy task when the sister has vengeance against the Germans in mind. Paolo is forced to grow up very quickly and he finds himself questioning himself and his developing friendships.
This is a hugely satisfying mystery, combining historical detail with almost a coming-of-age story for both Paolo and Nico. The question is raised about how soon history is forgotten and how easily people can be drawn into making the same mistakes. There is a magnificent twist and a poignant ending. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy historical fiction with an added mystery. It made a refreshing change to read a WWII story set in Italy, and in particular in Venice, and the author’s description of the city verged on poetic at times as he brought it to life in both the past and the present.
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