A rare, authentic portrayal of the plight of the Calabrese during World War Two.
In the English-speaking world, most Second World War-era historical fiction takes place in one of two countries: Germany for an Axis point of view or England for an Allied one. Tania Blanchard has broken tradition by setting her new novel, Echoes of War, in a nation that is rarely at the forefront of the narrative. There are relatively few stories set in Italy that detail life during the war, despite the country being one of three partners in the Axis Alliance.
Echoes of War is an epic tale chronicling the life of a young girl living in Calabria, a region in the rural deep south of Italy, as the war in Central Europe draws closer to the Mediterranean. It touches on the history of Italian involvement in the war but focuses more on the protagonist Giulia’s growth as she finds her calling as a healer while challenging the unfair societal expectations placed upon women at the time.
Though the novel explores herbal medicine as well, it’s more about Giulia’s coming-of-age while war and natural disaster threatens her world from every side. Even though the story is fictitious, it flows between pivotal historical moments, such as the Messina earthquake of 1908 and the Second Italo-Ethiopian War.
Blanchard, whose own Italian family history inspired her to write this novel, has done her research. Through the description of daily life, landscape, religious feasts, local superstitions, and even the food, the book perfectly captures Calabrese society, down to the slight variations in spelling of Italian words. Coming from a Calabrese family myself, I found the authenticity of the book to be astounding. Upon reading, there were many delightful moments of recognition for me, particularly in the use of Calabrese slang. Most importantly, this novel highlights that there is not one single Italian culture, but a collection of Italian regions, each with their own unique identities, histories, and traditions.
The book focuses on Giulia’s complex relationships with the most important people in her life, namely her lovers and family members. Through these sometimes rocky connections, we are reminded that people aren’t perfect, but that doesn’t mean you don’t love them.
There are several strong female characters, including Giulia herself, who refuses to give up her dreams of being a healer to get married and have children. We see examples of women who happily revolve their lives around work, who are happily housewives, and who do both. This important representation shows that happiness can be found along many different paths, and there’s no universal correct way to find success as a woman, even if you are living in the 1940s.
One of the most interesting characters in the novel is Don Silvio, a member of the secretive ‘ndrangheta, the Calabrese mafia. He’s human and endearing in some ways yet repulsive in others, fleshing out a stereotype that is frequently featured in literature set in Italy’s south. To her credit, Blanchard conveys the brutality of organised crime in Italy rather than glorifying it, as so often happens in popular culture.
This is emotional reading for anyone born of immigrant stock as it explores the pain of leaving your homeland and your family to find opportunity elsewhere. It’s faster in some parts than others but still commands your attention overall, partly due to the immersive sensory detail bringing the sights, sounds, and smells of Giulia’s world to life.
Echoes of War is an entertaining tale of fiction that will make your heart melt and sing and shatter. Simultaneously, it’s an authentic and rare portrayal of the plight of the Calabrese during the Second World War, perfect for historical fiction enthusiasts.
Reviewed by Vanessa Elle
Distributed by: Simon and Schuster
Released: September 2021