Published by Little, Brown and Company
Review by W. R. Greer
In her 2002 novel, Tourmaline, Joanna Scott introduced the character of Adriana Nardi, a beguiling young woman who drew the attention of foreign men on the island of Elba in the 1950s. Her new novel, Liberation, moves back a decade and tells the story of a few days in Adriana's life when she was 10 years old. Those few days were during the liberation of Elba from the Germans by Allied forces in June of 1944. Among those Allied forces was a contingent of North African soldiers, a group feared by the Elbans. Whether due to prejudice, ignorance, or rumors of atrocities elsewhere, Elbans feared for their safety from these liberators, especially fearing for their young women.
This is the reason Liberation begins with Adriana Nardi hiding in a kitchen cabinet on La Chiatta, the family estate, as Allied troops spread out across the island and the Germans retreated into the mountains. Adriana's scenes are told from her 10-year old perspective, voiced by an innocent girl, self-assured of her own safety, defiant without being disrespectful, and weary of the secrets and knowledge the adults won't share with her. Adriana obediently spends the first night in the cabinet, only to learn the next morning that a nearby girl wasn't spared the atrocities the adults feared. Even though the war had been mostly an inconvenience for the island and the German occupation was peaceful, Adriana felt the same frustration most Elbans felt. They knew their role in world affairs was tiny, perhaps non-existent, and would rather be left alone by the politics and wars that affected the outside world. It was this longing that would spur Adriana to sneak outdoors when she was unseen, just to revel in those stolen moments of freedom, sure of her safety as long as she stayed close to La Chiatta. These outdoor moments also introduced her to the African soldier, Amdu Diop.
Many of the chapters in Liberation belong to Amdu and tell his story during the liberation. Amdu was a most unlikely soldier. He was only 17, grandson of a famous Senegalese general, doing a stint in the army at his father's insistence before being sent to medical school. Amdu had no interest in war, fighting, or heroism. He ran away from most battles, only to return to his outfit when the fighting was over. His comrades liked him so much that they forgave his cowardice and welcomed him back with glee. Amdu was as innocent as Adriana and also self-assured of his own safety. His goal in life was to become a saint, to be loved by all and to perform miracles. As the liberation of Elba begins, he runs away from battle as usual, and in his wanderings around the island, he comes across other African soldiers raping and murdering the local girl. In that moment of seeing the evil, and knowing that he was seen by his comrades, the innocence that has engulfed Amdu begins to shred away. He runs farther into the island, only to be wounded by a sniper's bullet, and finds himself hiding on the grounds of La Chiatta.
Adriana and Amdu find themselves drawn to each other. It's the attraction of their similar personalities, their shared innocence, and their desire to protect the other from the horrors and realities that exist outside La Chiatta that bring them their first love. They can barely converse, settling on French, which Amdu spoke fluently and Adriana spoke poorly. They know nothing of each other and can't share much about their backgrounds or plans for the future, but find solace in each other's presence. Amdu knows, though, that he can't hide out at La Chiatta forever, and will have to return to his outfit. Adriana's uncle, Mario, is sure that Amdu is the embodiment of every evil perpetuated by an African, and strives to find a way to force Amdu to leave and to make him pay for his evil deeds. Adriana's mother, Giulia, is torn between protecting her daughter and doing the right thing for Amdu. She's desperate to protect her loved ones and La Chiatta from the war, and knows that war has a way of infiltrating their lives despite their actions.
Some of this novel also occurs sixty years later, with Adriana, now referred to as Mrs. Rundel, suffering a life-threatening medical emergency on a train ride into New York City. As Mrs. Rundel, Adriana has led a happy life with a loving husband and children, and her failing body threatens to take all that away from her. It's a fortunate life and one vastly different from what her life would have been if she'd stayed on Elba. As she struggles to live, collapsing helpless on a train full of strangers, the story of her life in 1944, and what ultimately happened to Adriana, Amdu, and Mario plays out in the rest of the novel.
Joanna Scott is a terrific writer whose prose flows smoothly from the page to your imagination. As she did in Tourmaline, she makes Elba a combination of an exotic and a familiar place, one you see clearly in your mind's eye and wish to visit once you put the book down. Since the reader mostly sees the island through the innocent eyes of Adriana or Amdu, it comes off as a magical place. It's an island of beauty and family, an idyll that is ultimately spoiled by war. Both Adriana and Amdu, though, are aware of the realities of the world, as much as they'd like to deny them. When Adriana follows a cat into the boathouse at La Chiatta, she's unaware that Amdu is hiding there, but she's aware of a presence that means she's not alone.
What if Adriana died now, right here, on the threshold of the boathouse, age ten? Paura: the only suitable expression for this feeling of being afraid, the breathy stumble of the letters mimicking its meaning. La paura. Ha paura. The dream of seeing footprints in white powder on the floor. There were no footprints in the boathouse. The dream of finding herself alone and not alone at the same time. What did she really know for sure about anything? Help: aiuta -- another good word. But to speak it aloud would be to invite danger into the open. The dream always ends before you die -- until the last dream, which would be just like this: standing on a threshold, unable to go forward or back, locked in place by the eyes of someone hidden in the darkness.Mario sees the island differently, with more nuance based on his experiences and awareness of the evil that can lurk in the heart of any man, even on Elba. It's this darkness that looms on the edge of Adriana's and Amdu's fantasy world that threatens to force them to confront reality. Growing up and accepting these realities of the world is a stage of life, and one often foisted on unsuspecting victims during times of war, even during the few days it took for the liberation of Elba.
Liberation takes a while to grab the reader. Adriana's immaturity in the threat of danger begins as grating as a 10-year old can be. The passages of Mrs. Rundel slowly falling victim to her body sixty years later appear to serve no purpose. Amdu is such a fantasist full of wild ideas about what he will become that he's laughable and hard to take seriously as a character. Mario is arrogant, ambitious, and prejudiced. As the story of those few days coalesces, though, Joanna Scott brings it all together, fusing their separate lives through a series of events that will forever transform them all. Fantasy must always give way to reality and innocence must ultimately be shed for maturity and responsibility. The question Joanna Scott asks appears to be, "Is the world better because of it?"
Liberation won't be one of those books with a wide readership, although it deserves to be. What begins as a scattered mix of events and emotions becomes a touching novel about the liberation of all of us from our own foibles. Joanna Scott hints that we should never completely surrender our innocence while acknowledging the realities of the world that can consume us. She has delivered another fine novel that should find its home within each of us.
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Read our review of Tourmaline.