My thanks go out to Sarah, representing publisher Bookouture, for saving me a place on this lovely ‘Books On Tour’ schedule.
I also need to thank the great NetGalley team, for always making life so easy when downloading review copies.
THE GIRL WITH THE SCARLET RIBBON
Florence, 1943. As the bells toll in the solemn dark streets and enemy soldiers loiter by the city’s beautiful bridges, schoolgirl Gabriella is racked with guilt. She is ashamed of the crush she had on the soldier with raven-black hair, a crush that allowed a secret notebook to fall into the hands of the enemy. As a result, men in uniform have come for her family. Her father is arrested and her younger brother Riccardo devastatingly injured. Faced with her brother’s haunted eyes and the prospect of never seeing her father again, Gabriella is determined to make things right. She seeks out her old schoolfriend Stefanina, an unlikely member of the Italian resistance with her beautiful curls and scarlet ribbon.
Soon Gabriella is riding her rusty black bicycle, criss-crossing the river with deadly information in her basket, and learning everything she can from Stefanina. But one terrible day, Stefanina doesn’t appear at their meeting point and Gabriella, desperate to find her, goes where she shouldn’t, into the shadowed corners of the city…
Years later Sofia, mourning the loss of her famous painter father Riccardo, carries out his last request to find his long-lost sister Gabriella in Florence. When she meets her aunt, an elegant old woman living in a palazzo filled with roses, she is shocked when Gabriella tells her about the dark stories behind her father’s art. And when Sofia learns of a missing painting, a picture that has not surfaced since the war, a shocking and tragic story begins to unfold – the story of an independent, courageous young women, with a scarlet ribbon in her dark hair, whose youth and beauty was no protection from the enemy. Will Sofia finally understand why her father could never speak about the war, and piece together the shocking events that inspired his missing painting?
Following an eventful career as a public relations consultant, specialising in business and travel, Suzanne Goldring turned to writing the kind of novels she likes to read, about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.
Whether she is working in her thatched cottage in Hampshire or her seaside home in North Cornwall, Suzanne finds inspiration in the secrets hidden by everyday life.
Visit Suzanne at her website
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“Back when the world was free to travel, I went to Florence to find a story….and here it is…I had an adventure discovering this beautiful city and another adventure writing this during the UK lockdown in the spring of 2021. I hope readers will enjoy travelling back to an invaded city with a past”
FLORENCE – 8 SEPTEMBER 1943
Gabriella had tried moulding the potato dough into little dumplings the way her mother had shown her a hundred times. ‘Lightly, girl, lightly,’ Mama had said. ‘Gnocchi need only the lightest touch.’
She rolled a long sausage shape on the floured marble counter, then pinched off lengths no bigger than the top of her thumb. But she still couldn’t get it right. The dough looked yellow and shiny, compared to her mother’s flour-dusted pillows, scoured with a fork to capture the sauce. But if she didn’t make the gnocchi, what would they eat tonight? There was so little flour to be had these days that they couldn’t make pasta. But the basil was still growing well, so perhaps they could make pesto to add flavour to the bland but filling mouthfuls of fresh dough.
Even before the war started, supplies had become restricted. Everything was state property; everyone had their allocation. Gabriella grumbled to herself, but knew she was luckier than most.
LONDON – SEPTEMBER 2019
Sofia stood back from the large canvas with its distorted figures. As always, there was the lamb, its neck oozing with what looked like dark, clotting blood, and, in the distance, over an impression of dark blue hills, floating white blooms like dandelion clocks. Her father’s signature, these symbols, never explained, never expanded, but always present in all of his many paintings.
Since his not entirely unexpected death in February at the age of eighty-seven, she had come to feel the tremendous weight of responsibility for organising this retrospective exhibition.
“Damn you, she said to herself, shaking her head. Why couldn’t you have arranged this trip earlier? In fact, why didn’t you just tell us about the pictures while you were still here, you arrogant bastard? Then she paced up and down. It was getting late, the northern sky patterned with a fringe of pink and gold cast by the setting sun. You’re not going to get away with this, she thought. I’m going to give Phoebe some ridiculous explanations just to get her off my back and then I’m going to Florence. I’m going to dig and dig, until I find out what you’ve been trying to tell us and the world all these years. You won’t be able to hide yourself any more after that, will you?”
“He always was a bit of a child. I think perhaps all artists are. They learn to play with what isn’t real and embellish it with their imagination”
“Dissenting Italians, classed as troublemakers or partisans, were mostly either hanged or imprisoned, but some were sent to Germany to boost the labour force and others were sent further away. She wasn’t sure where they were sent, but she was sure it wasn’t pleasant and that their chances of returning were slim”
“We’ll always have reminders of this time, Gaby,’ he said, lightly touching his maimed ear. ‘I can paint over an image or rub out a sketch, but I’ll never forget what I have seen. Those who remain will have to remember to tell the stories of those who have gone”
“When I look at his paintings I see his interpretation of those times, again and again,’ Gabriella said. ‘I can see how it coloured every subject he painted, even right until the very end with his final piece of work.”
“The soldiers laughed and marched off, leaving her dangling as a warning to other independent, courageous young women that their youth and their beauty were no protection from punishment”
“She put her family in danger. She would risk her life to atone for it”
Over the past months, I have been privileged to read some truly outstanding books, from an amazing newly published catalogue of WWII storylines, written by some very talented authors. Each time I have felt compelled to comment that my latest encounter, has probably been the best in genre to date, although I have enjoyed them all! But ‘hold the front page’, because this book has just taken things to a new level for me personally.
The strong and unique storyline, a dual timeline family saga, set across two countries, the complex and troubled characters, the evocative sense of time and place, all beautifully brought to life through some personally meaningful paintings, and emotionally charged narrative and dialogue, always told with true heart and genuine feeling. So, if you have your tissues at the ready…
Socially and culturally, this storyline doesn’t pull any punches about the harsh life lived in a 1940s Florence, which is under German occupation, where every strata of society is affected to varying degrees and no one escapes the wrath of an army flexing its military muscle. Jews, or people from other secular races, regardless of gender or age, are being rounded up, often beaten for the merest show of passive resistance, then herded onto trains heading for who knows where. It is also the opportunity for a new reign of terror from within the City’s own borders to be sanctioned and employed freely by the occupying forces. War has the power to divide, as much as it does to unite, hence we witness the rise of Xenophobic gangs of ‘Black Shirts’, who are infiltrating groups of residents who have previously lived harmoniously side by side, pitting one against the other, encouraging neighbours, friends and family to report those of a different race or religion, who are then rounded up, tortured and either ‘disappeared’ or passed over to the German controlled authorities, for a fee.
Young teenagers, Gabriella and her brother Riccardo, together with their parents live in this state of constant fear, for whilst the family themselves are upright and respectable citizens, the ‘guests’ who share their attic and basement rooms are not, and whilst the family condone their activities to help the resistance movement, this does place them all in increasingly grave danger. The family endures the angst of constant food shortages, so when a young and naive Gabriella is ‘wooed’ by the persuasive daughter of family who seem to want for nothing, and the charms of a young and handsome man, with the promise of extra food for the family table, her heart inevitably rules her head, with almost devastating consequences. Riccardo, who has been physically weakened by polio, has an altogether more fragile personality, is highly strung and mentally frail, so when he is led to believe it is his actions which have placed his parents in such peril, his mental health deteriorates even further, leaving him tortured, scarred and dependent on his artistic skills for his sanity and the ability to express his emotions. Ultimately, both young people will prove their stoicism and bravery to survive, but at what personal cost!
Fast forward several decades to London and Cornwall 2019. Sadly Riccardo, by now a well renowned and successful artist, has recently passed away, leaving a wife, Isobel and a daughter, Sofia. In the throes of trying to organise an exhibition of her Father’s paintings, whilst calming a widow who is angry and far from grieving, an emotional Sofia decides that the strange final request of her father should be fulfilled, which for the first time sees both she and her mother heading to Florence, the place of Riccardo’s birth. Once there, their itinerary is set in stone by Riccardo, including a visit to his sister, Gabriella, who still lives in the family home and whom neither Isobel nor Sofia knew existed, as she and Riccardo were estranged. However they are hoping she has some answers to the many questions they have about Riccardo, both him as a person and the meaning of his paintings.
Gabriella isn’t at all what they were expecting her to be like and she fully understands the anger her brother might have evoked in his wife, with his controlling ways. However, as the story of their childhood unfolds, even Isobel is moved to tears on discovering the true reasons Riccardo painted with the fervour and ferocity that he did, as the only way he knew how to control his tortured and broken mind. With Gabriella’s story reflecting those of each of the paintings, what each one represented, why none of them had ever been given a name and what had happened to the mysterious missing canvas #16, her own sense of profound shame and guilt also becomes apparent, as does her longing for forgiveness, something her brother had been unable to contemplate, right until the time he took his anger to his grave.
Those are the barest bones of this well structured, highly textured, multi-layered and completely immersive storyline, where the dual time strands are woven beautifully together to flesh out the life of a tragically broken man, and the contemporary coming of age story of a daughter discovering her family roots and events, which had shaped the man her father had become. Together they form a richly crafted, powerful and grippingly intense narrative, which is fluid, seamlessly told through short, well-signposted chapters and highlight a genuine strength and resilience in the face of adversity, of loyalty, a sense of doing the right thing and fearlessly fighting for the cause against a common enemy. Compelling and profoundly touching words conjured up a truly visual and evocative sense of time and place and I could imagine myself in the Florentine marketplace, standing shoulder to shoulder with my fellow partisans, holding back the tears as public and fatal retribution is meted out by the enemy on another innocent compatriot. Then, many years later, walking around the art gallery in London, alone and in silence, taking in the atmosphere of the story told by a myriad of paintings, each a cameo of a moment in time which was just too painful to put into words.
Author Suzanne Goldring affords that same attention to detail and and visual inclusion, to her characters, no matter how small a part they play in the whole. They are well drawn and defined and whilst not all are easy to identify with or show empathy for, the overall dynamics and synergy between them, makes them completely investable, authentic and genuine in their individual roles. As a cast, they encompass the complete spectrum of complex human emotions, from the unreliable, duplicitous and manipulative, to the raw, passionate and vulnerable, and they have all been afforded a strong voice with which to tell their individual stories and direct the chain of events.
Looking back dispassionately when I had finished my journey with this book, I could only come to the conclusion that there really were no winners in this generational saga. Even though the story had traversed many decades and Riccardo had even crossed the ocean in a bid for freedom and peace of mind, none of the protagonists seemed able to escape the thoughts that dominated their waking hours, nor the visions of the terrible things they had witnessed, which were locked in their heads when they closed their eyes at night. So many damaged lives and too many wasted opportunities to ever afford peace of mind. There was no forgiveness or lifting of the burden of guilt and with Riccardo locking the experiences away in a place where only he could find them, no one saw past the facade he created, to offer the help and solace he needed to set himself and all those who cared deeply for him, free. However, after listening to Gabriella’s story, there seemed to be a palpable sense of relief, the gentle sigh and release of a long-held breath, the sudden lifting of a burden of guilt and the forging of genuine family friendships.
What always makes reading such a wonderful experience for me, is that with each and every book, I am taken on a unique and individual journey, by authors who can fire my imagination, stimulate my senses and stir my emotions. Whilst for me personally, this book had the power to evoke so many feelings, I’m sure I won’t have felt the same way about it as the last reader, nor probably the next, so this really is a journey you need to make for yourself and see where it leads you!
A complimentary download of this book for review purposes, was made available by Bookouture and supplied by NetGalley
Any thoughts or comments are my own personal opinion and I am in no way being monetarily compensated for this, or any other article which promotes this book or its author.
I personally do not agree with ‘rating’ a book, as the overall experience is all a matter of personal taste, which varies from reader to reader. However some review sites do demand a rating value, so when this review is posted to such a site, it will attract a well deserved 5 out of 5 stars!