A Thread of Grace tells the story of the Nazi occupation of a region of north east Italy. It begins with an uprooted community of Jews in southern France who have to flee France across the Alps when the Italians sign the armistice. It’s essentially the story of how these refugees fare in Italy.
When I discovered Mary Doria Russell had invented all the locations in the novel I was a bit dubious as so often this is a trick writers use to mask the sparseness of their knowledge. But the thoroughness of the research in this novel and the beautiful lightness with which it carries it is breathtaking. This is no The Nightingale where one felt the author had spent two weeks in France, had no knowledge of the language beyond oui and merde and had read a couple of books on the war and watched a few films. Russell has an intimate knowledge of Italy, Italians and every aspect of her material which is impressively wide. She sets herself the task of telling the story from all sides – so the cast of characters is expansive: we have the Gestapo, Wehrmacht officers, a chief Rabbi, Catholic priests, Nuns, a German deserter, partisans, fascists, an English SOE officer, children, mothers, fathers and grandparents. Were I to be hyper-critical I might say there were too many characters and as a result it was difficult to emotionally bond with any one specific character. It didn’t though bother me though I can imagine it might try the patience of some readers. Sometimes you have to read back to remind yourself who someone is, not helped by a couple of characters changing their identity. Only other nitpick was now and again a character would deliver a history lesson – in those times propaganda was rife and no one knew for certain what was happening so when a character gives a detailed account of what exactly German divisions on other fronts are doing or what Allied tactics were it jarred a bit. The majority of WW2 novels tend to do this. I’m reading the journal of an Italian partisan at the moment and despite being very well connected she doesn’t have much of a clue what’s going on in the war. It’s all rumours. I suspect fiction has contributed to the notion we now have that many more people knew about the Holocaust while it was happening than in reality did. My partisan woman certainly knew nothing about it. It’s a fascinating subject in itself how fiction begins to alter our perception of historical events.
So A Thread of Grace is a tremendously enjoyable novel with no other pretensions but to tell a fabulously well-crafted story (and into the bargain pay homage to the humanity and bravery of the Italian people in helping a persecuted friendless people in need). Most beguiling of all its characteristics was the love with which this novel was written. You could feel that heartbeat of love on every page.