By Joanna Scott
Little, Brown. 262 pp. $23.95
Sometime toward the end of World War II, in this beautifully realized, exquisitely constructed and fascinating novel, 10-year-old Adriana Nardi crouches, locked up tight in a kitchen cabinet while her mother and uncle chat nervously at the kitchen table. They're in a villa on the island of Elba, which is, once more, about to play a (very small) part in European history. Famous only as Napoleon's place of exile, coveted -- in a dim sort of way -- for its mineral deposits, Elba caught the eye of the Germans in the first part of the war, and they promptly conquered it. Now, a "liberation" is taking place, staged by an army of French colonials, who've brought along plenty of African troops as cannon fodder. But Elba is so small that the battle for it will take less than a week. The Elbans hunker down, shut their doors, lock up their daughters. Already an incautious girl, Sofia Canuti, has been raped and murdered by a gang of black soldiers. The islanders take this badly. They're used to being left alone, in every sense. Why must these clattering armies insist on using their land -- which seems in so many ways to be the very thumbprint of heaven -- to act out their power plays?
By dawn, the danger seems to have passed. When Adriana emerges again into her own home, it is still a lavish, exquisitely cared-for villa. As her aristocratic mother and uncle and a couple of servants linger in the kitchen, Adriana wanders outside where nothing seems to have changed: "The inland breeze slipping past her already carried the warmth of the midmorning sun along with the perfume of jasmine and an unfamiliar tangy residue. Somewhere someone was chopping wood -- the distant clacking of the ax was reassuringly steady. And the buzzing of a lone plane passing overhead was as serene as the chortling of the doves."
This fearless, intelligent girl pokes around, testing her own courage: "She was looking for the soldiers who had killed Sofia Canuti, in order to prove that they couldn't do the same thing to her." The servant's son finds her soon enough and drags her back inside, but not before she sees what she thinks might be "a shirtless man, shrunken by the distance, his dark back glistening like the quartz-speckled granite in the mountains, plummeting toward the ground, disappearing into the weeds." But was it really a man? It could have been a heron or the shadow of an overhead plane.
Kay Boyle wrote long ago of African cannon fodder used in World War II, of the bewilderment of young boys away from their homes, gangly and utterly ignorant, doomed to die in the service of a conflict that had absolutely nothing to do with them. The shirtless man Adriana has seen in the shimmering hills is indeed an African conscript escaped from his regiment. He's just a stripling, a boy who hates the very idea of war. He's one of history's many fall guys, Amdu, a 17-year-old kid brought along for the ride in case somebody needs to stop a bullet. He's running away from the war as fast as he can.
The attitude of most of the people on Elba from beginning to end is: Would you guys mind taking your annoying little dramas elsewhere? These people live on an island for a reason: They care absolutely nothing for fascism vs. democracy, good vs. evil or any of the so-called great issues of the day. They're fascinated by their own lives, their own personal exaltations and possible humiliations. Adriana, that clever child, is obsessed with nothing but her own defiance and courage. The black shadow-figure she's seen, Amdu, is lost in dreams of performing miracles and becoming an actual saint when he gets back home. Adriana's mother relishes lying to the French colonials for the fun of making them look like fools. Even Adriana's Uncle Mario has collaborated with the Germans only to further his ambitions to become mayor of Elba's capital city.
Everything in "Liberation" happens in just a few days, remembered by Adriana, 60 now (and whom we've seen in an earlier novel, "Tourmaline"), exiled, depressingly, to New Jersey. She meditates on illness, a daring rescue, first love, wretched accidents, wrenching betrayal, unnecessary death. The "plot" in her memories is war. But the main character is Elba itself, which shrugs off mankind's crimes or heroism, totally trumping "good" or "evil" with its jasmine and quartz, its hills and vastly neutral sea. A calming and beautiful book to read for consolation, in these dingy times.
Sunday in Book World
* Walter Mosley embraces politics and poetry.
* Candace Bushnell of "Sex and the City" sharpens her lipstick.
* Science books, from Descartes to alien abduction.
* Anthony Grafton reads his horoscope.
* And the American dream might kill you.