The Italians At Cleats Corner Store is yet another debut novel set after the second world war (notice a pattern in my reading here? :-)).
It opens in Leyton, a small village in England in 1949, where we are introduced to the main character, Connie, who works at Mrs Cleats corner store. Her world changes with the arrival of two Italian boys and their father to work at the local ‘big house’ on the estate. The story follows Connie, who is trapped in the small village atmosphere of Leyton, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and strangers are treated with suspicion. It alternates between this time and place, and the village of Montelupini, starting in 1939, a mountainous village in the Lazio region of Italy.
The Italian setting chapters were for me the most interesting. They showed, through the eyes of the two boys, Vitorio and Lucio, how the war affected Italy. The village is beholden to its saint, Santa Lucia, who watches over the town from her hilltop grotto. The villagers believe they are blessed and special because of their saint and are ruled with an iron fist by the padre that presides over her. But the war and shortages of food do awful things to people, and as things get worse, Vitorio leaves the town to join the lawless vigilante groups that roam the hills outside. Lucio stays by his mother, as he’s been instructed by his father, who is off fighting with the Fascists. The small details of Italian life, and the dialogue of the characters, is really vivid.
The Italian part of the story alternates with the English chapters, and slowly reveals how Lucio and Vitorio have responded to the threats they face, and how that relates to their behaviour once they are safe in England after the war. The climax in the Italian village is tragic and reveals the hidden pain that Lucio carries with him, and why he and his father don’t get along. The English story is full of small incidents that I was expecting to have more meaning in the climax, so that was a small criticism. The story draws together the different themes of courage, dislocation and the need to escape that drive each character arc in the ending.
Its a very skillfully drawn story and a great example of how an alternating structure can be drawn together cohesively. The characterisation is also very strong, but for me the high point is the sad and dark effects of war on the Italian village. Its a clever plot and I’m sure the reason why this book was signed by Scribe before it was finished. The prose is also also beautiful.