Review from the Online Portfolio of Marcy Koopmans B.A, B. Ed.
To see the original go to: http://is.gd/brqQA
The Ripples of History
the spirit of the revelatory nature of Andrew Smith’s Edith’s War, I have a confession to make; I have
never been a fan of historical fiction. Perhaps it’s due to growing up Canadian and being in possession of several hazy
memories of boring books about this or that war given to me in school. Smith makes use of particular phenomenon, our indistinctly
remembered childhoods rendered in strokes of shock, love and the universal loss of innocence, to elevate a form that bored
so many school children before me with Edith’s War.
This is not to suggest that
Edith’s War is for kids, but that Smith’s work attempts to tie up those muddled sensations of being young
with the awakening that often comes to us in our twenties and the compromises we make beyond those tumultuous years. Edith,
the daughter of “indifferent Protestant” but seriously buttoned up parents, finds herself persuaded into marriage
to Joe Maguire by the mass patriotism World War II inspired in Britain. After quickly becoming pregnant with Joe’s child
just before he goes off to war, she goes to live with Joe’s mother and brother in a seaside bungalow to escape the potential
bombing of Liverpool. It is here that Edith meets the Italian neighbours, the Baccanellos.
there the novel delves into the tragedy of the internment of British Italians, a facet of history often neglected. Edith’s
experience of the war is shaped by this internment and her relationship with the Baccanello family. The story of her war is
interspersed – in alternating chapters – with Edith’s two adult sons, Will and Shamus, wandering around
Venice and dredging up the distant past.
The novel works its way to exposition of the truth of
Edith’s wartime experience (and the truth of Will and Shamus’ lives) via a sometimes painstaking exploration of
memory. Edith’s story is told in straightforward narrative style from her perspective, but the sections focusing on
her two sons seem more limited in scope. We see only into Shamus’ internal dialogue, and the details of his and his
brother’s lives are revealed by their conversation, marked as it is by years of history, resentment and loss. This is
not exactly a criticism. Shamus and Will’s relationship feels extraordinarily real – so real that I sometimes
found myself wanting to thump them both in order to make then say what they mean already.
missing piece is the stretch of time left out of the book. We are given tantalizing glimpses into the lives of the Maguires
between the war and the trip to Venice; Joe and Will’s fraught relationship is briefly addressed, as is Shamus’
position relative to them, but Smith’s characterization of Shamus as the peacemaker between his father and brother is
not as well fleshed out as the rest of the book. Perhaps this was deliberate on Smith’s part as he paints the war as
an exceptional period in many peoples’ lives rather than the norm. For Edith, it allows her to release the inhibitions
driven into her by her parents. The use of silence in the novel (Edith’s silence about her war, Shamus’ silence
about the loss of his partner Luke and the novel’s silence about those intervening years) speaks to the way in which
memory is often informed by absence; the things we do not see can shape the things we do.
is a sure hand with capturing the way human experience is shaped by tragedy and exceptional circumstance. We are so used to
hearing about the experiences of war from the front lines that it is easy to forget about the ripples affected by such violent
confrontation on a global scale. Those left behind, those considered a threat by their very own government and the children
of wartime, in ways both literal and figurative, are wound together into a single narrative cord in Edith’s War.
The revelation of truth in the lives of Edith, Will, Shamus and the Baccanello family is tremendously frustrating and heartbreaking,
but ultimately satisfying in its expression.
Review from A LIT CHICK, literary themes and events discussed, book, art and film reviews, short essays on life
such as it is
To see the original go to: http://bit.ly/d3nvba This review also appears on the Descant Magazine web site: http://ow.ly/19nKe
It's Edith's War and Our War Too
Edith's War, Andrew Smith sensitively and deftly shifts from the present day somewhat strained relationship of two brothers named Will and Shamus Maguire
traveling in Venice to the secret history of their mother Edith during WWII when countless Italians, some born in England,
were interned as enemy aliens. I was lucky enough to read this book in manuscript form before it was published.
The Liverpool born brothers could not be more different. The eldest Will is taciturn, cold and unsociable. Shamus, a few
years younger and now living in Canada, is gentler, sensitive but obviously a bit cowed by his older brother's volatile personality.
Shamus is still mourning the death of his partner Luke. Will is divorced and seems embittered by his life. Both
men seem emotionally adrift. They spend the day reminiscing (and bickering), taking in Venice and awaiting their mother Edith's
visit. Family life was an emotionally stilted and unpleasant memory for Will. Shamus has a less angry recollection but is
still intrigued by the speculation of the true relationship between his parents Edith and Joe (whom both brothers refer to
by their first names).
The two generations are bound together by their connection to Italy and it turns out Edith's
romantic past is much more complicated than they know.
Far from being the cold, prim fish that the brothers
presume Edith to be, she has had a tumultuous emotional and romantic history in Britain during WWII while husband Joe was
off to war and she was pregnant with her first child Will. While Edith lived with her mother-in-law and brother-in-law she
became friendly with the Baccanello family next door.
Anna and Gianni Baccanello have three sons Carlo, Paolo
and Domenico and a close relationship with the Maguires. There is a sweet and understated attraction between Edith and the
eldest son Carlo who lives with his wheelchair bound wife Isobel.
This attraction becomes more intense when all
the Baccanello men are interned as aliens and possible threats to security by Churchill's orders once Mussolini declares war
on England in 1940. This reflects a true historical event that few in the West know about (I certainly did not). Edith, intelligent
but politically apathetic, is galvanized into aiding her neighbors when the the men are interned and then ordered to be transported
overseas for indefinite incarceration on The Arandora Star.
On July 2, 1940 the ship, which held nearly1,200 German and Italian internees, was torpedoed by a German submarine
U-47, and 800 men were killed or drowned. Carlo survives this harrowing experience as does the youngest son but other family
members do not.
Even though Carlo survives, his ordeal is not over as he is then shipped to an internment camp
at Woolfall Heath. Some historical detail about the camp from "Wartime camps in Huyton", BBC Liverpool:
The camp, first occupied in May, 1940, was formed
around several streets of new, empty council houses and flats and then made secure with high barbed wire fencing. Twelve internees
were allocated to each house, but overcrowding resulted in many sleeping in tents. Initially the camp was only meant to hold
the internees until they could be shipped to the Isle of Man. However, largely in response to the torpedoing of the transport ship 'The Arandora Star', with the loss of nearly 700 people,
the deportations ended.
Brave, resourceful Edith stands up for the Baccanellos against British authorities and struggles largely
in vain - even combating her bigoted brother-in-law and the suspicion of neighbors and friends in their small village. But
she makes a fateful choice which will link her to the Baccanellos forever.
It reminds me that we often lose sight
of what our parents were before they became our parents - their acts of courage, their youthful passions and sometimes transgressions.
They were (are) as passionate and hopeful as any of us.
In the present day, the Maguire brothers bicker and piece
together bits of forgotten family history in Venice. They meet an enigmatic stranger named Armando Belli who captivates Will.
He carries a cigarette case which intrigues Will and triggers a long buried memory about the presence of Carlo Baccanello
in his early life. Without saying too much to spoil the plot, a secret resides in Edith which we learn of only at the very
The scenes set in WWII are compelling and meticulously recreate
the atmosphere of fear and paranoia which plague the two families under siege by both the German bombardment and English racism
This book is politically relevant today as it reminds us that the perceived enemies within
our midst are often the pawns of horrific historical circumstances beyond their control. And before we assume that this is
a phenomenon confined to other nations, let's remember that the exact same situation happened with Japanese-Canadians during
WWII. My own mother-in-law, who was a child younger than my daughter, and her whole family, were interned at Lemon Creek. Closer to our own time, think of the Muslim-Canadians wrongly accused and incarcerated today. We are doomed to repeat these
mistakes unless we are vigilant. And this book helps us remember that.
FROM F STREET REVIEW, with Matt Fullerty
Below is an interview I conducted with Andrew Smith about his novel EDITH'S WAR (recently released). Andrew Smith tells how he wrote the book, his inspiration and the connections between Britain, Canada and Italy below:
EDITH'S WAR tells a little-known story about Italian internment in Britain during WWII. How did you
first encounter this information (new to me), and decide it would make a good novel?
I knew I wanted to write
about how WWII changed British society, how the war was the mechanism that caused people to examine the way society worked
and to call into question many of the conventions that had existed for centuries. I was researching this at the Imperial
War Museum in London when I stumbled across the story of Italian internment in UK. The addition of Italians to the book,
who are generally viewed as easy-going and uninhibited, especially compared to the British, fulfilled a welcome contrast
to the depiction of an uptight British population. Also the accounts of their internment by harmless Italian men were classic
examples of the stupidity of war and also of the way normal standards can change and deteriorate during wartime. This wartime
shift in morality in relation to how the British Italians were treated, so different to how they might have been treated
in peacetime, appalled and fascinated me.
I greatly enjoyed your evocation of place in the book - Liverpool,
Venice (I am from Warrington, a town near Liverpool). Why/how did you choose these cities in particular to tell the story?
As you know, Liverpool was one of the hardest hit cities in Britain during bombing by the Germans. Liverpudlians suffered
greatly during WWII. It was also the port from which many "aliens" were shipped to Canada or Australia, including
hundreds of British Italian men. And the juxtaposition of the easy-going hedonistic and sensual city of Venice with the somewhat
stiff and proper character that the younger brother had become, made him seem even more inhibited. And I made Venice the
original home of the Italian couple who had lived in Liverpool during the war as a device to move the plot along. And finally
you tend to write about what you know. I grew up on Merseyside, in Huyton, not far from Warrington, in the 40s and 50s.
And I also know Venice well having spent a lot of time there during the last twenty years.
What was the
greatest struggle you faced in writing the book?
There are good struggles and bad struggles. It's a huge struggle
to write a novel like Edith's War because I had to do so much research and then the struggle that all author's face in developing
characters, evolving a plot, etc. etc. But these are good struggles; I loved every minute of the research and writing stage.
Then there is another huge struggle to get published. I tried long and hard to find an agent and a publisher and experienced
many rejections along the way. This part of the process is excruciating and can be depressing if you start to take the rejections
personally. One has to be strong, stick by the courage of your convictions, and realize that publishing is a business like
Do you feel you are making a political point in writing this story? You decided to address
the subject matter in the form of a novel. Why not non-fiction, or some other form?
If I'm making a political
point it has to do with emphasizing the omnipresence and senselessness of war, and the fact that society seems unable to
change in any significant way. I've written and published two non-fiction books, which I enjoyed writing, but I think it's
difficult to impose passion and a distinct point of view into non-fiction. I'm not saying it can't be done, but I think
it's easier to do it more effectively in fiction. I wanted to state very clearly how humankind seems unable to avoid war
(witness the presence of wars constantly throughout history), yet how senseless and unfair war always is. Even WWII, which
might be seen as justified from the Allies' perspective, has hundreds if not thousands of examples of inhumanity and unnecessary
suffering imposed by all sides. The novel form allowed me to portray actual events and have the reader make no mistake that
I viewed them as senseless and unnecessary. I also wanted to imply how difficult it is for any of us to change, on a personal
level but also on a larger scale, as a society. A non-fiction book usually only tells the story, whereas a novel can show
the effects of a story and be so much more emotive in the telling.
How are you enjoying the publishing
process, having your first book released? If there's one thing you could change about publishing a novel, what would it
It's very rewarding to hold the finished product of so much work in one's hands. But, to go back to my
point about publishing being a business, I don't think many authors are prepared for the dog-eat-dog commercial side of
publishing. I'm fortunate because I was somewhat prepared by my work in publishing, I'm a book designer, but even I wasn't
ready for the alarming truths of how difficult it is to get one's book noticed and into the bookstores. If there's one thing
I could change it would be that books are sold on their merit alone, and not because a publisher paid for a prominent position
in a bookstore, or because the author has a TV show, or has won a literary prize, or one of the hundred other reasons a book
gets noticed other than for the quality of writing or cleverness of plot, etc. But I'm sounding cynical. I'm really not,
and I do still believe that if a book is good it'll get the readership it deserves.
A good amount of the
novel is set in and about Italy. Do you feel personally connected to Italy?
Not particularly, other than I've
spent a lot of time there since I was in my twenties and have quite a few Italian friends whom I love, and I like Italy
better than almost anywhere else.
Do you remember when you first wanted to be a writer?
I do, because I started writing late in life. It was 1988 and I was forty-years-old, when I took my first creative writing
course. Just previous to that I had taken a bus trip over the Himalayas from Kashmir to Ladakh in Northern India and written
a magazine article about it, the first piece of writing I'd ever published. The article won an award for travel writing,
which inspired me to write more. So I took some courses and started writing short fiction, which I love writing. I don't
know why it took me so long. I don't think being a writer was presented as an option at the school I went to in Liverpool
so I never thought of it. So I went to art school and became a graphic designer. I've been lucky to have found writing,
and to have another profession that allows me time to write but also keeps the wolf from the door. Because, as we know,
books rarely provide much of an income.
How important are family relations in telling a good story?
I think human relations of any kind are crucial to a good story. We all need something we can relate to and human relations
provide a great deal that is familiar to us all. I suppose family relations are often the most intense and usually the most
influential on our lives so they hold a certain gravitas that no other relations hold, they're what forms us. So, while
not necessary to a good story, family relations are certainly wonderful additions to a story.
your work schedule like when you're writing?
Once I've done research and am into the writing stage I tend to
get up fairly early in the morning and write solidly for four to six hours. Once I actually sit down and put fingers to
keyboard the time usually flies by. But I'm as bad as most writers about starting, I'll make a cup of tea I don't really
need or thumb through a magazine I've already read. I don't know why many writers find it hard to actually start writing;
maybe because it's so intense, it's hard work to write, and it's rather tiring. Often when I eventually stop I'm fairly drained.
But once I start I rarely look up, except to check research, until I just run out of steam some half-a-dozen hours later.