Book review: Partisan Heart, by Gordon Kerr

Gordon Kerr, already the author of several historical non-fiction titles, including on Italy, marks his crime fiction debut with The Partisan Heart. It opens in 1999, with journalist Michael mourning the death of his wife, Rosa, killed in a car accident during a visit by the couple to her brother and his family in a northern Italian town. Returning to the UK, he opens a package addressed to Rosa containing a man’s jacket. But it’s not his. A visit to the Scottish hotel which sent the jacket reveals that Rosa was having an affair with an Italian. So he returns to Italy to search for her lover, while agreeing with his editor to report on the recent kidnapping of a woman while he is there.

Gordon Kerr
Gordon Kerr

In the same region, in 1943, teenage partisan fighter Sandro begins an affair with married Angela, whom he meets in a forest clearing between their villages. Things are complicated by the fact that Angela’s husband, Luigi, is the leader of the partisan group Sandro has joined. The group attempts a kidnapping, but the target, a German general, is killed in the ambush and they leave with only items looted from the bodies of soldiers travelling with him (“A good pair of boots was a unit of high currency”).

Meanwhile, Michael arrives in the town where the kidnapping of the young woman took place, intent on interviewing the victim’s father – who has a familiar name. Having established in 1999 that Luigi has a large house, we get a clue in the 1940s about how he came by the money to leave his humble life behind. On his visit to Luigi, now an old man in poor health, Michael also meets missing Theresa’s half-brother, Antonio, who is strangely unemotional about her disappearance.

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Finally, Michael learns the truth about the kidnapping, about who Rosa was having the affair with, and who killed her, but the series of revelatory scenes lacks tension – if only we’d known anything about Rosa, or their marriage, or her motivation for the affair, so that we cared about what happened to her. The women in this novel are little more than plot devices, rather than fully realised people we can invest in.

The descriptions of the valley and its villages, the weather and Michael’s emotions are good. But while twin timelines can be an effective device to show how the past affects later events, they should work harder than this. Here the two don’t feed into each other enough, and when the last links are revealed, it’s too late, too confusing and too far-fetched.

Sandro’s story on its own would make a powerful novel – he’s a fully realised character, with a life of traumatic experiences, often movingly portrayed – and the glimpse into the Italian partisan movement is fascinating; Kerr’s historical knowledge comes to the fore here.

Michael’s story, essentially a conventional thriller, gets rather half-hearted attention. Handled more deftly, the two tales could make a satisfying single novel, but as it stands, they don’t reward the reader’s patience. - Louise Fairbairn

The Partisan Heart, by Gordon Kerr, Muswell Press, £12.99