Mary Doria Russell, author of the gorgeously astonishing Jesuit space saga The Sparrow and its disappointing sequel, Children of God, has left behind the science fiction genre for her third novel, A Thread of Grace. Still, even in German-occupied WWII Italy, her preoccupations are the same: human beings, the terrible decisions they must make under impossible circumstances, and the consequences of those decisions in their own lives and those of others.
A Thread of Grace begins at the moment of Italy’s surrender to the Allies in 1943, and follows its many (very many)characters to the end of the war in 1945. Russell is looking at a story that is less well-known to me than some other WWII stories: the experiences of Jews and their protectors in Italy, as Communists and Catholics risked their lives to help their Jewish neighbors escape the invading Germans. Thousands of Jews fled to Italy, where the racial segregation laws were much looser than in German-occupied nations; many of these Jews found help and sanctuary when they needed it most. Italy’s Jewish population suffered, of course, but less than almost any other occupied nation in Europe (Denmark wins the prize, with only about a hundred Jews meeting their deaths). In A Thread of Grace, Russell is looking at the reasons why.
The novel is rich, full of detail, and complex — perhaps a little too complex, with literally dozens of characters peopling its pages. These characters are Italian Jews, German officers, Catholics, Communists, doctors, stonemasons, partisans, rebels, old men, children, farmers, rabbis, priests — all people who have been pushed by war into hiding, running, drinking, trying to survive, fighting back. While this wide range gives a sense of the ordinary life that has been interrupted, it’s inevitable that some of the characters get neglected. By the end, I felt that only three or four characters had really been fleshed out and given a chance at more than two-dimensional representation of an occupation or creed: Don Osvaldo, a Catholic priest who can hide Jews but can’t forgive their persecutors; Werner Schramm, a Nazi doctor who learns about redemption the long way around; Renzo Leoni, an Italian Jew of many disguises; and Lidia, Renzo’s mother, an old woman who would rather blow up a building than stay in her home mending clothes.
This is war. Russell is unsparing. Most of these characters meet tragic ends (and, I thought, some of them in a hurry, as if she couldn’t think of a more graceful way to make it happen. I know — war isn’t graceful — but this is a novel.) For a book that’s meant to be exploring the reasons Jews found more help in Italy than almost anywhere else, Russell comes up with few answers. One person at a time, she seems to say. One family helping another, one widow reaching out for another woman’s baby, one man hiding another because of his personal convictions. Why Italy? Maybe a better question is: why not Germany? While it gave the book’s philosophical undertones something of a ragged feel, the personal connections were reasonably convincing. Maybe that’s all there ever is. Vaclav Havel says, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” If so, this book seeks out hope in the darkest parts of our history and our nature, following the thread of grace.
ETA: I would probably have liked this book better if I hadn’t just read Marilynne Robinson’s Home. Sometimes books just suffer by comparison, and there’s nothing you can do about it.