ll Mulino. An old crumbling mill, by a winding river, nestled in the Tuscan mountains. An empty home that holds memories of homemade pasta and Nonna’s stories by the fire, and later: the Nazi invasion, and a family torn apart by a heartbreaking betrayal.
Anna is distraught when her beloved mother, Ines, passes away. She inherits a box of papers, handwritten in Italian and yellowed with age, and a tantalizing promise that the truth about what happened during the war lies within.
The diaries lead Anna to the small village of Rofelle, where she slowly starts to heal as she explores sun-kissed olive groves, and pieces together her mother’s past: happy days spent herding sheep across Tuscan meadows cruelly interrupted when World War II erupted and the Nazis arrived; fleeing her home to join the Resistenza; and risking everything to protect an injured British soldier who captured her heart. But Anna is no closer to learning the truth: what sent Ines running from her adored homeland?
When she meets an elderly Italian gentleman living in a deserted hamlet, who flinches at her mother’s name and refuses to speak English, Anna is sure he knows more about the devastating secret that tore apart her mother’s family. But in this small Tuscan community, some wartime secrets were never meant to be uncovered….
Betrayal and treachery are compelling sentiments to begin a story. Immediately, the reader is engaged by a harrowing description of the brutality of war. A young lad is being tortured in the village school by traitorous Italians. We don’t know who and we don’t know why.
The author then changes pace, changes the timeline and changes the country. Anna has recently lost her mother, Ines. A parcel arrives.
“A cardboard box, the lid tied down with an old shoelace. Inside a brown envelope bears her name, written in her mother’s flowery handwriting. There are notebooks, bundles of papers rolled up in a perished elastic band and a piece of folded fabric. A sheet of lined notepaper, cheap and old-fashioned, with a spray of violets printed in the corner.”
These are diaries, handwritten in Italian, from her mother. This is a story about secrets, confessions and a mother’s dying wish for her daughter to know the truth. “Do with it what you will.” These are her mother’s haunting instructions. We follow Anna to Rofelle, in Tuscany where she begins her own journey of self-discovery and starts to uncover family mysteries with the help of Francesco, a local widowed lecturer who translates the diaries for her. The story flows effortlessly between timelines and unfurls, just like the bundles of notes, yellowed with age. The more of the diary Anna reads, the more she starts to understand her mother’s life during the war. The reader too, is drawn into a world of poverty, conflict, and hardship. In 1944, the world was locked into a bloody battle with perpetrators and victims on both sides. The author describes the fear of Ines’ family who is hiding a wounded English soldier in their barn.
“We can’t do this. It’s too dangerous. There are too many Germans around. There were ten women, children and old men butchered in Gattara in retaliation for the Partiagiani killing one German soldier. There is no telling who is spying on us at any one moment.”
The author pays tribute to the sacrifices and fortitude of many Italians who helped captured English soldiers, gave them food and shelter. Ines, herself, becomes one of those who risks her own safety to help the cause. Not surprisingly Ines and the Englishman fall in love and marry. Yet, this is only part of the story. At only eighteen years old, Ines leaves Italy to start a new life with her husband. Her new English mother and father-in-law accept her up to a point but her initial experiences are overwhelming. The way of life, customs, behaviours and even the food are completely alien to her and her husband does little to assuage this. The love that she thought she had found proves to be short-lived. The touches of pathos, are invoked by the author in describing the suffering and misery she endures in her marriage but convention at the time dictated that marital problems were concealed. Ines just had to get on with it.
“The poor woman went through the war in Italy, then had another type of personal war to deal with in England. I wish she’d been able to talk to me properly about her life.”
“She is doing it now, with her story,” says Franceso.
As more of the diary is revealed, Anna learns that when her mother returned to Rofelle, some years later to visit her family, she had a clandestine encounter with an old friend, the consequences of which were far-reaching and is a significant part of the story. Keeping a secret can be a burden and the harm comes from having to live with it. We hope that for Anna, the truth is enlightening. Her troubled childhood, conflict, her mother’s often detached attitude and her father’s coldness and aggression. Can the truth vindicate the past?
Why I recommend this book
Highly recommended. I loved this book. It is a book of fiction but was inspired by the author’s mother in law, Giuseppina Micheli who fell in love with an English Captain when they met in Urbino in 1944. The story unfolds on so many levels. An old mill, a wartime love story, an abusive marriage, the ruthless killing of a son and brother to Ines. A mistrustful and bitter old man called Danilo who refuses at first to talk to Anna about the past yet clearly he must remember Ines, her mother.
We revel in the beautiful Tuscan scenery as the background and setting of The Tuscan Secret deliver an authentic journey into the region, past and present due in part to the author’s connection and knowledge of Italian life. No story set in Italy could be complete without talking about regional food.
“Roast peppers, courgettes and aubergines, home-made cappelletti. For the main course, a whole roast suckling pig served with potatoes from the orto roasted in olive oil and rosemary. Nasturtiums, borage, marigold petals arranged in a salad with dandelion leaves and wild sorrel.”
Italian customs, words, and phrases from everyday life are incorporated. She creates a two-dimensional story, one from the 1940s and one in the present day. Impeccable research of historical facts as well as personal memoirs from local people skilfully woven into this moving story not only demonstrates the author’s passion for accuracy but adds a credible and convincing component
The author’s descriptive skill transports the reader and Anna back in time to see the place where her mother lived.
“When her eyes adapt to the gloom, Anna makes out a cracked stone sink under the window. She tries to imagine her grandmother washing pots while looking out at the forest. Discarded on the floor are a broken colander with one leg missing and a ladle without a handle. Plaster crumbles from the walls. A crucifix hangs above an old metal bed frame holding a mouse-nibbled mattress”
Metaphorically speaking, the diaries become a medium by which Anna can unlock the past and not only find her own place in the world but create it. She discovers something more than just heritage – her mother’s bravery and fortitude as well as her mother’s misery and sorrow.
“Starting my mother’s diary is like stepping into a new world for me. I wish I’d been able to appreciate the life she left behind and to understand her.”
Anna’s journey connects with the ghosts of the past to make sense of her own life. We cannot rewrite the past but there is a gentle flow in the book towards perception, understanding and forgiveness. Love may not be eternal but hope and happiness are attainable.
As Oscar Wilde wrote
“The final mystery is oneself!”
Angela Petch is a USA Today bestselling author and an award-winning writer of fiction-and the occasional poem. Every summer she leaves her home in West Sussex, England to reside in the Tuscan Apennines for six months where she and her husband own a renovated watermill .
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