Part historical novel, part mystery, even part romance, spanning two continents and over sixty years, The Villa Triste begins with two sisters in Florence in September 1943. It is two months after the Allies began the Italian campaign by invading Sicily. The deposed Mussolini’s replacement as Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio’s quiet negotiations with the Allies about peace have resulted in an Armistice, but Italy is not out of the war. Rather, it awaits the arrival of its former German allies, coming now not as allies but as occupiers: Caterina Cammaccio is eight weeks from her wedding to her naval officer fiancé, Ludovico, and her sister Isabella is a student. Ludovico does not make it to Florence; the Germans do.
The mystery begins decades later in November 2006 when Alessandro Palliotti a very senior Florentine police officer indeed finds himself involved in the investigation of the murder of Giovanni Trantemento a “hero of the resistance. A partisan” (82). Palliotti’s investigations lead him to realise that the motives for the murder lie in the past, particularly in the years that saw the German occupation of Florence.
As Grindle tells us in her “Author’s Note” at the beginning of the novel, “By the end of the war, over 200,000 Italians were formally recognized as members of the Resistance”; not all of them were partisans. Many would have been living secret double lives, appearing one way to the world and knowing themselves something even some one else. There are many houses harbouring secrets and dangerous memories in this novel; so much is not quite what it seems that the reader senses a subtle ambiguity in the title. It is not just the old Gestapo headquarters that was a “villa triste,” and the events of that time cast long shadows into the present.
Switching between past and present and between focalizing the events through Caterina and Palliotti, Grindle creates a page-turning mystery in which the reader often has more information than Palliotti, and as the reader follows Palliotti’s investigations, the reader begins to realise before Palliotti does just exactly what happened over sixty years previously and the effects the past has wrought on the present.
While the solution of the mystery is believable and satisfying, The Villa Triste is more than a simple thriller. It reminds us of a crucial period of Italian history and highlights the moral conundrum of the choice between collaboration or resistance. To just what extent is non-resistance collaboration? It raises questions about love and loyalty that most of us hope never to have to face. What if one is faced with a choice of betrayals: one’s family or one’s comrades, or one’s country? What does one do? When must we lie to those nearest to us? What is our obligation to the past to ensure that it is unforgotten? What is one’s obligation to live? One’s obligation to ensure that the truth is ultimately told? For what are we prepared to die? Serious questions indeed.
Grindle highlights the importance of the written record and the tensions between history and memory, between what is known and what is believed, and between what is told and what is secret. In her layered narratives, she also draws gentle attention to the possibilities inherent in the novel form.
The Villa Triste is a very satisfying read.