Book review: The Sound of the Hours, by Karen Campbell

Karen Campbell' PIC: Ian Watson
Karen Campbell' PIC: Ian Watson
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The Sound of the Hours is a rich and thoroughly enjoyable novel: a love story, a war story, a story of divided loyalties, of Scottish-Italian relationships, of racial discrimination and racist fears, of the strength and tenacity and warmth of families. It is a work of considerable complexity with a powerful narrative drive.

There is a prologue and epilogue in Paisley where the Scottish-Italian Giusti family own the Caffè del Rio, but the action of the novel takes place in Italy in 1943-44, the most terrible years of the war there, when the country was divided after the fall of Mussolini, when still-loyal Fascists fought against anti-Fascist Partisans, and the Allies advanced north from Rome and engaged in the most brutal fighting against the Germans, who had constructed and held the defensive line known as the Gothic Line. These were months of confusion, fear, betrayal, horror, hardship and hunger.

The novel is set mostly in and around Barga, a mountain town north of Lucca; it’s a town from which many emigrated to Scotland in the early years of the century, and which is therefore said to be the most Scottish town in Italy. The heroine – and she is a true heroine – is Vittoria, her father Scottish-Italian, which is why she speaks Scots-English, her mother Elena a committed Fascist devoted to Il Duce – a devotion her husband does not share. There is a younger sister and two much younger brothers and a cousin Joe (Giuseppe), brought up in Scotland. Perhaps he will marry Vittoria, whom he addresses as “Dolce Vita”; perhaps not. It’s a time when all futures are in the air.

There’s a second strand to the novel. Its hero – and he is a true hero as Vittoria is a true heroine – is a young black American, Frank, serving in the all-black regiment known as the Buffaloes, fighting in Freedom’s Cause for a country which denies him equality, in an army where segregation is the rule and Frank and his fellow Buffaloes are not permitted to eat at the same table as their white colleagues. Meanwhile many Italians fear the coloured “Americani” even more than they fear Germans – they are “Mori”, savages, given to robbery, rape and worse.

It is obvious that Vittoria and Frank are to be brought together and will fall in love, but Campbell brings this off skilfully. You hope for the best; you fear for the worst. A harsh or cynical critic might say that Frank is just a bit too good to be true, but even cynics should recognise that good people are at least as common as bad ones.

The war in Barga and the hills and forests around is terrible and confused. There are atrocities, committed not without provocation. The narrative line is inevitably wavering; one could wish that the map provided was larger and more detailed. Nevertheless Campbell guides us through the fog of war with admirable dexterity. She is able to do so partly because she has a keen visual sense; partly because she is so good on the detail of the everyday struggle to survive, so good on hunger, food and living conditions. Moreover she handles the convergence of the lives of her heroine and hero with uncommon skill. She has the ability, rarer in fiction today than it used to be, to make you care about her characters.Moreover, she realises that people are not all of a piece. The early chapters will probably have you thinking the mother Elena a silly and tiresome woman. So, indeed, in some respects she is. But there is more to her than that, another side to her which invites sympathy and admiration.

This is an ambitious novel, and one of rare scope and understanding. It demands the reader’s close attention and rewards it. It also, unlike so many novels, invites a second reading. It is the kind of novel which is likely to have you thinking it ought to be filmed, and then realising that a film would be unlikely to do justice to its amplitude and complexity. But it will surely win prizes.

The Sound of the Hours, by Karen Campbell, Bloomsbury, 450pp, £14.99