This week we will continue our adventures in Italy circa The Great War as told by Royals announcer Steve Physioc in his 2018 historical fiction novel, The Walls of Lucca. If you missed last week’s post you can find it here. This week we were reading chapters three through five. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
Isabella Roselli - A 20-year-old orphan woman (as of 1914) living at the Blessings Convent in Lucca. She earns the love of her fellow sisters with her ability to grow gardens and cook delicious meals even though she doesn’t believe their interpretations of God or enjoy the convent’s rituals.
Sister Anna - Isabella’s friend, another nun of the convent.
Bernardini Carollo - A sturdy man, runs works on a vineyard/farm in Puglia, Italy. Husband and father to two sons. Strict Catholic.
Maria Carollo - Wife to Bernardini. May be more perceptive than her husband.
Benny Carollo - Bernardini’s oldest son. 20 years old (as of 1914). Strong, loyal, dependable. Similar to his father.
Franco Carollo - Bernardini’s youngest son. 18 years old (as of 1914). Questions everything. Similar to his mother. Slow, deliberate, contemplative. Left for Rome to find work to help support his family.
Benito Mussolini - A charismatic socialist politician. You probably remember him from your history books.
Giacomo Matteotti - Another socialist politician, but one who sticks to his principles instead of swaying with the political climate to curry favor.
Sergeant Antonio San Stefano - A soldier from Sicily, takes Franco under his wing during his first battle.
Franco, having left home, decides to start questioning everything he’s been taught in earnest. The narrative then skips to his arrival in Rome and he immediately sees Benito Mussolini extorting the masses about the virtues of staying out of a war at an impromptu political rally on The Spanish Steps before beginning his search for a new job. He eventually gets a job repairing railroads where his new coworkers exposit about the lead-up to the war.
Summer turns to fall; Franco gets a new, better job at a munitions factory. He is fascinated by all the political discussions surrounding him and attends another rally of Mussolini’s; this time Mussolini is preaching in favor of fighting in the war. Franco gets thrown out for protesting against this change and makes a new friend. Giacomo Matteotti spends some time explaining to Franco how Mussolini cares only about political power as well as the current political landscape both foreign and domestic.
More time passes; it is the spring of 1915. Italy declares war and Franco feels the impact immediately as one of his coworkers attempts to sabotage the factory he works at. A short time later Franco receives a letter from home. His brother has been drafted and his family needs him to return.
Franco returns home, argues with his brother about politics (Franco takes the liberal/pacifist side while his brother takes the war-mongering/patriotic side) before eventually escorting him to the train station where Benny can enlist. Then, surprisingly, Franco joins him on the train.
In Lucca, Isabella is at it again. She leaves her church service and promises to go out with Paolo the flirty chef in order to get his cutting board so she can prepare a meal for a poor family she saw enter the convent for the service. During the course of the meal, Isabella gets in a spat with a wealthy landowner who shows no remorse for the loss of the family who works on her farm.
Meanwhile, the Carollo boys are serving the Italian army in The Isonzo Valley. Unsurprisingly, things are not going well for or with Franco. Benny feels guilty for whatever role he played in getting Franco to sign up. Then their first battle comes. Franco quickly loses track of Benny and sees death close up for the first time as others among his fellow countrymen are picked off. Just a couple days later he’s seen so much of it he’s nearly numb to the experience. Then he fires his rifle for the first time to save San Stefano’s life.
Well, certainly a lot more happened in these chapters than last week. I am not a fan of chapter three at all; it basically only occurs so that Franco can meet Mussolini, the narrator can mention some Roman locations of interest, and to make sure the reader is entirely aware of the entire political context of the lead-up to Italy’s involvement in World War I. The only thing that really happens narratively is that Franco becomes more liberal in his views, Benny joins the army, and Franco goes with him. The surprise of Franco going with him is really good. It actually surprised me, but it also felt earned with all the internal conflict Franco has had up to this point. Unfortunately, the rest feels more like an opportunity for Physioc to expound upon his knowledge of history and Rome than anything else.
Chapter four is incredibly short, as all of Isabella’s POV sections have been, and just shows her continuing to do that whole “Not paying close attention to religion despite technically being a nun and also cooking really good” personality stuff. It expands on that a little to show that she, like Franco is opposed to the war and gives us a bit more background on her parents - apparently they died to illness and she was there. Her father also gifted her the basket of seeds she had when she arrived at the convent, so that explains a bit about why she’s so attached to gardening. So there’s a bit of character growth, but she still isn’t doing anything and despite giving her three POV chapters, there’s no indication why she’s been included in this book at all except that she’s the one who lives at the titular location.
Chapter five is shorter than than chapter three but contains a lot more of interest. There are two ways to go about describing war, in my experience. You can describe the heroic acts of valor or the horror; Physioc chooses the latter. That makes sense because his story is about how the war affected the lower-class citizens and that’s pretty much how they’d experience it. I can’t decide how I feel about Franco, though. At times he’s an interesting counterpoint to pretty much everyone around him in his pacifistic views. He also seems to be far more aware of the political climate and reality of his situation than he should be. This is wear the side-trip to Rome in chapter three comes into play a bit more because we see Franco interact with politicians, and especially a liberal politician who spoke eloquently on why he wanted to stay out of the war. But we glossed over those encounters so quickly and they ultimately didn’t last for long - he was in Rome for less than a year and didn’t even know Matteotti for the entire time - that it still feels a bit unearned and like the writer is using him as a mouthpiece.
One frustration I’m having is with the way time moves in the book. Each chapter gives us a month and a year, but the chapter doesn’t always stay within that time frame. For example, chapter three passes through several days and seasons. Then, in chapter five, unspecified amounts of time pass, then in the middle of all that we’re given a specific date (October 21 is when the artillery started), and then more unspecified time passes. It all combines to make it a little difficult to figure out when things are happening and how time is passing.
Even so, I’m interested to see what happens next. Will Franco continue being a heroic soldier who also talks about how horrible and stupid war is for the working class? Will he find a different course? Will Isabella ever do anything besides cook and garden? Next time we’ll read chapters six through nine. Over the course of those four chapters we’re going to advance the story a couple of years; so buckle your seatbelts!