The Garden of Angels
by David Hewson
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Pub Date 06 Apr 2021 | Archive Date 26 Mar 2021
Canongate Books, Severn House
The Palazzo Colombina is home to the Uccello family: three generations of men, trapped together in the dusty palace on Venice’s Grand Canal. Awkward fifteen-year-old Nico. His distant, business-focused father. And his beloved grandfather, Paolo. Paolo is dying. But before he passes, he has secrets he’s waited his whole life to share.
When a Jewish classmate is attacked by bullies, Nico just watches – earning him a week’s suspension and a typed, yellowing manuscript from his frail Nonno Paolo. A history lesson, his grandfather says. A secret he must keep from his father. A tale of blood and madness . . .
Nico is transported back to the Venice of 1943, an occupied city seething under its Nazi overlords, and to the defining moment of his grandfather’s life: when Paolo’s support for a murdered Jewish woman brings him into the sights of the city’s underground resistance. Hooked and unsettled, Nico can’t stop reading – but he soon wonders if he ever knew his beloved grandfather at all.
"Gripping and powerful, The Garden of Angels richly evokes the tension and threat of Nazi-occupied Venice. A moving and important novel"
TESS GERRITSEN, NYT bestselling author of I KNOW A SECRET
"Vivid and compelling. A richly wrought thriller, a love story and a warning that spans decades. I was thinking about this book for days after I'd closed it"
SARAH PINBOROUGH, NYT and Sunday Times bestselling author
"If you only read one book this year, read this one. Its essential truth about what happened in WWII and what is happening now will both chill and inspire you. It's also a damn good story"
“I’m a huge fan of David’s work—in The Garden of Angels, not only do we explore his characters over three generations of life changing circumstances, but also the city of Venice equally ‘in extremis.’ It awakens the senses and opens the heart"
RICHARD ARMITAGE, narrator of the audiobook
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 34 members
I was granted complimentary access to the eARC of The Garden of Angels by David Hewson through the publisher, Canongate Books - Severn House, via NetGalley is exchange for an honest review. Although I ended up requested and being granted access to the audiobook, I was sent a widget for the ebook in order to participate in the upcoming blog tour for this title with Rachel's Random Resources in March 2021. Thank you to all involved in giving me this opportunity! This has not swayed my opinion. My thoughts are my own and my review is honest.
The Garden of Angels is a story split between the present and the past. In the present, Nico Uccello has been suspended from school for a week for watching classmates attack a Jewish newcomer. When he confesses this to his dying grandfather, his grandfather gives him his own story, written down in parts, to read and keep secret until he is finished. In the past (grandfather Paolo's memoir), young Paolo lives in Nazi-occupied Italy and finds himself entangled in the underground Jewish resistance.
The former history student in me jumped at the chance to review this title! 20th Century wartime history was my focus, but I didn't get much from the Italian perspective in my studies. Even though this is fiction, it's clearly steeped in historical fact. That alone made this an enjoyable read to me. Add in the suspense aspect of not knowing how Paolo's story will resolve or what Nico will do with this new knowledge and I couldn't put it down!
The majority of this book set in the past reads like a novelized autobiography of the sort my history professors would have assigned to undergrads to understand the mindset of the people we were studying, like when we read Hilary's The First and the Last. The portions set in the present beautifully illustrate a teenage boy's breakthrough from complacently racist and passive to informed, righteous, and ready to stand up for the rights of others. I was particularly struck by the way the elders in his life responded when he started asking for other memories to go alongside his grandfather's and how not all of them were as willing. He didn't realize what sort of pain and fear he was asking them to uncover, and their sharp responses made him realize how little respect he was giving them and their past.
Overall the story this book tells is beautifully heartbreaking, or heartbreakingly beautiful. It has a thriller element, and though it isn't overly fast-paced, there are no dull moments. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who loves history, historical fiction, or heartfelt life lesson stories.
Paolo Uccello is dying. Having used his years building up the fortunes of the family’s Venice-based weaving business, he has one last thing to do: Tell his story.
His grandson Nico has been suspended from school. A “friend” of his was caught bullying a Jewish classmate while Nico stood by and did not intervene. His schedule suddenly empty, he visits his grandfather in the hospital every day.
Paolo has written out his story and enclosed it in a series of envelopes. He gives them to Nico one by one. They tell the story of Venice near the end of World War II. It was a time of Nazi occupation. It was a time of collaborators and partisans. It was a time of secrets and lies. It was a time of death.
The Garden of Angels pulls you inexorably into its drama. There are two stories being told in parallel: Paolo’s very personal recollections of Venice and Nico’s equally personal reactions to the story being told. Each story informs the other, though obviously the history as read by Nico has the more immediate effect on Nico. Still, we feel Nico’s reactions throughout the historical portions: admiration, disgust, revulsion, fondness, despair.
There is much history in this novel that was unknown to me. I of course knew of the pogroms that slaughtered Jews by the millions throughout central and eastern Europe. I was not really aware, though not surprised, that they had extended into Italy as well. Collaborators with the Nazis were not surprising. I knew of them. But the presence of a Jewish collaborator charged with rounding up other Jews for the ovens caused a visceral reaction. On one level I was not surprised. Venality is hardly a rare trait. I realized that I had mentally refused to believe that such traitors existed. Garden opened my eyes.
Which is, of course, part of the majesty of well-crafted fiction. David Hewson could undoubtedly have turned his research into a history of Venice during the period. A city torn between Nazi occupiers, allegedly enforcing the will of Mussolini but in reality cementing the control of Berlin, and the advancing American and British armies coming up from the south. But I doubt I would have read that. I would have been interested and I’m confident he would have made it interesting. It still would have had a very small audience.
Fiction, though, allows you to share stories with people who might never pick up a book of history. Fiction shares truth through the windows of stories. Humans are people of story. We are each protagonists in our own tales, heroes and villains, saints and sinners, not always at the center of the action but always in the center of our own narrative. Paolo and Nico resonated with me because of their stories. They came to life in my mind. Their stories shaped my thinking, expanded my knowledge, touched my heart, and reshaped part of my mind.
The Garden of Angels is outstanding. I am not the same person that I was before I read the book. The events may be dark, the truths hard to face, the choices made might not be the choices you would make. But the power of this book is undeniable and the characters may prove to be unforgettable.
David Hewson is a new author for me. The Garden of Angels is a combination of historical novel and World War Two thriller, written in a patient, multi-layered style which explores a moment in history through the lives of a small number of people. Hewson makes wartime Venice come alive in all its stench, beauty, cruelty, fear and starvation.
It is 1943 and the locals are watching the news, following the Allies’ progress towards Rome, wondering how much longer they must wait to be free once more. Meanwhile the Germans search amongst the locals for partisans, traitors, communists. But most of all they search for Jews. A teenage boy, alone after his parents are killed in a bombing raid, must continue the business of the family firm, jacquard weavers of the most beautiful velvet. He must complete the commission his father won just before he died. He stays within the four walls of his home, whilst on the streets outside people are being killed. Until one day Paulo sees something that makes him determined to do something rather than stand by.
The story hinges on the modern-day relationship between a boy and his grandfather, encapsulated from page one as Nonno Paulo reads a bedtime story to five-year-old Nico. He reads from a true story from a history book and they discuss the nature of truth, the truth of death. Ten years later, in 1999 when Nonno Paulo is dying, he gives to Nico a series of letters telling the truth of his life in Venice in 1943 during the German occupation. No one knows Paulo’s real story.
In 1943, Venice is a closed city, tight-knit, full of secret spaces and places the Germans don’t know. It is both a place for hiding and a place for living under the eye of the Nazis and Black Brigades. Paolo shelters two partisans who are on the run. Brother and sister Vanni and Mika Artom are not hunted solely because they have killed Germans, but because they are Jews. Mika, unable to sit quietly by, finds a local resistance group and agrees to take part in a plot to murder a visiting VIP, Salvatore Bruno, a Jew who is betraying other Jews. Vanni, injured and hardly able to move, helps Paolo and his assistant Chiara to weave.
This is a powerful story that hooks you from the beginning and draws you in. I was still thinking about the book days after finishing it. It is not a regular war thriller though it has all the usual conventions. It is more about how we as humans act under extreme circumstances, what we do to survive, where we draw our red lines, when to stand aside and when to step in, how far we will go to win; surprisingly similar dilemmas for the occupiers and the occupied when all are ultimately ordinary people.
Read more of my book reviews at http://www.sandradanby.com/book-reviews-a-z/
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