A tension filled literary historical novel with depth and a revealing look at fascism.
The compelling and raw subject matter of this new work of historical literary fiction by author Sarah Day is extremely topical as we celebrate 50 years since the end to outlawing of homosexuality.
However this book takes us back to the 1930s and is set in Fascist Sicily where prejudice is still rife and homosexuality enough of a crime to warrant many young gay men being rounded up and imprisoned on a small island San Domino to be kept away from mainstream Italy.
They are treated more like prisoners of war than actual criminals and have a certain amount of freedom to roam on the tiny island they all end up on, but their freedom is curtailed and resentment and anger simmers amongst these passionate and volatile young men ensuring a tense and exciting setting for this captivating debut novel.
Am I cynical, or is the very last thing you'd imagine doing with a group of young men who’s homosexual tendencies you are trying to stamp out, is send them all to a small island to live in one large room together with nobody else for company? but the tensions arise not just from physical attractions but volatile situations of political unrest.
Apparently this is exactly what happened, as the book is based very much on factual events. It’s a bold subject for a young, debut novelist to tackle and the author does a great job, it’s well written and makes for compelling and convincing reading.
But, Oh boy, did I have to step outside my comfort zone for this when what I imagined was going to be an easy summer read was for me, rather difficult.
Not because of any prejudice, nor because of any graphic sex, as there isn't any (In fact the book is very circumspect given its edgy subject matter and themes of sexuality) but because I have no prior knowledge of Fascism or of Sicily and there were many, many unfamiliar words and terms, names and places I’ve never before come across that I kept having to look up and this interrupted the flow somewhat. In fact the very first sentence threw me, throwing ‘pederasty’ and ‘confino’ into my list of “what I wouldn’t give for a glossary” terms.
There are a lot of characters introduced in the first few chapters, all young men with complicated names, most with nicknames and nom de plumes which they are also referred to as - so I didn’t know who was who or what was what for quite some time but it falls into place and the tension and pace builds as the story unfolds.
The lead characters are Francesco a young man whose past keeps trying to catch up with him and Elena a naïve local island girl, who longs for escape and freedom. She takes a shine to Francesco and is unable to work out why he is not as she would expect a young man to be. She becomes a go between, risking a lot to carry messages, without her brutish father discovering her duality. But her ignorance might become her undoing.
The story builds towards a cruel deception and betrayal and though never an easy read it’s certainly different, informative and sympathetically written and will enthrall readers with a love of Italy or an interest in the rise of fascism.