In anticipation of the main course tomorrow, here is my review of Katharine Johnson’s new release. As you all know, I love Italy, and I hugely enjoyed “The Secret”. Even the cover is characteristic.
I recently read “The Silence” by this author and really enjoyed it, but “The Secret” is on another level. If I could have given it 6 stars, I would have. There are many facets to the story and the clever time-switches between the present day and past add to the layers of secrets that stretch back to occupied Italy during the Second World War. I strongly believe that we need to understand our past, in order to understand the present and cope with the future, and Katharine Johnson voices this through Carlo, whose mother (Irene) is on the fringes of dementia. He wants to know what happened in her past. “It’s our memories that make us what we are,” he says. It becomes almost an obsession to know his mother’s secrets locked in her heart – much to his wife’s annoyance – for Cass and Carlo have a busy restaurant to run and he is distracted. He gives Irene a tape recorder and, after she has worked out how to use it, her memories pour out. This is such a clever way of writing the flashbacks.
And so, we are taken back to “that blurred line between the past and present”, and for Carlo, “the ghosts from five decades ago shifted at the corners of his vision.” I know Italy well and have studied that period of the war for my own writing, and this is one of the many reasons I appreciated this story. Because Johnson’s descriptions of that time and, indeed of present day Italy, are vivid and accurate. And yet, she writes with fantasy too. It isn’t simply a documentary about war-torn Italy. Yes, we learn of the fall of Mussolini and how hard it is to know whom to trust in the climate of divided political beliefs. And she gives us deeply moving and tense pictures of a massacre and images of German soldiers ruthlessly hunting for partisans in the village. I smelt the fear through her words. Afterwards, “the cries must have stopped at some time, but she (Martina), already knew she’d never stop hearing them,” and “human beings turned to a heap of rubble.” Martina is a complicated character and thoroughly believable. If she wasn’t complex, then the blur between truth and lies would not work as well. Throughout the story, I never knew what the truth was going to be. There is a clever line near the beginning of the book about present day tourists in Italy: “what they saw wasn’t a lie – just another truth.” And I felt that could apply to the layers of events in the book.
Elena, the mother of Martina’s missing husband, is another extraordinary woman. In her grief, she sits at the piano, “monstrously fragile, staring into space… the notes resounded through every room, drowning out the whispering in the chimneys.”
I love this author’s writing. Congratulations, Katharine Johnson and thank you for a wonderful story.
“A domani” – see you tomorrow, when I’ll chat to the author.