“The Tuscan Child” by Rhys Bowen is one of those rare books that will stick with people long after they finish it. The story is based on two time periods, 1944 and 1973, where the former is a historical account of World War II and the latter embodies a mystery.
Wanting to challenge herself, Bowen wrote in two time periods with parallel stories coming together at the end.
“I always wanted to write something set in Tuscany because I love it so much,” she said. “I have been there quite a few times in my life, including two years ago when I was asked to teach an author’s workshop. The World War II aspect came from an account I read where an English airman bailed out of his plane before it crashed into Tuscany. All these bits and pieces come together in this story.”
The novel begins at the end of 1944 when British airman Hugo Langley must parachute out of his crashing plane into German-occupied Tuscany, Italy. Badly wounded, he finds refuge in a monastery and is discovered by one of the villagers, Sophia Bartoli.
She aids him in his quest to become well enough to escape to the Allied lines. As time passes both realize that they have fallen in love and plot to escape together. During these scenes, World War II is brought to life as readers jump out of the airplane with Hugo, fear the German atrocities with Sophia and realize how severe are the conditions.
Fast forward to 1973 where Hugo’s daughter Joanna goes through her just-deceased father’s old trunk filled with his possessions. In it she finds an unopened letter addressed to Sofia. As Joanna had little knowledge of her father’s wartime life, the revelation it contains startles her. Joanna travels to the small Tuscan hill town of San Salvatore to learn about her father and the time he spent there. The mystery comes into play when everybody in this small town refuses to acknowledge that Hugo hid near the village.
The most sobering parts of the book are the descriptions of the cruelties committed by the Nazis on the Italian population.
“I wanted to show that after the Italians switched sides,” Bowen said. “The Germans were brutal and committed atrocities, including machine-gunning down whole villages. World War II is the last time we had a clear sense of good versus evil. I think it is important we remember it and understand what people went through. I wanted to show the major risk Sophia took by helping the British airman. She brought danger to herself, her child and her village. Even though it was at the end of the war, the Germans became like vicious dogs that are cornered and deliberately killed people.”
Tuscany is a character unto itself. Having been there several times, Bowen wanted readers to understand how the “town has a feeling to it with the high stone walls and narrow streets.
“I walked through the market and did wine tastings. I also found out there is a central olive press in the area where bribery allowed for a better time slot,” she said. “I will be going back this summer to teach the same course. The festival I described in the book happened the last time I was there. It was a procession with bands and banners combining religion and folk culture. Regarding the earthquakes I wrote about, they can be devastating. Remember in Italy all those stone houses will fall down.”
Bowen brings to life the setting where the reader can smell the cooking scents, see the brilliant olive groves, and hear the Italian chatter. This is also an action-packed story that is very intense and haunting.