Sometimes a novel’s setting looms so large it becomes a crucial element of the plot. That’s certainly true of the dangerous streets of World War II Rome, which Joseph O’Connor explores in his historical thriller MY FATHER’S HOUSE (Europa, 440 pp., $27), and even more so of the “neutral, independent country within Rome” known as Vatican City, where an Irish priest has organized an escape line for refugees, diplomats and Allied soldiers sought by the German forces that control northern Italy.
Inspired by the true story of Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty, O’Connor’s fiction homes in on one crucial mission, set for Christmas Eve, 1943. Reconstructed through various documents and the testimony of his randomly assembled band of collaborators, whose meetings are camouflaged as choir practices, the larger story of their cat-and-mouse game with the local Gestapo chief is relayed even as that single night’s maneuverings unfold.
Obersturmbannführer Hauptmann will soon receive reinforcements from his angry and impatient superiors in Berlin, so those in hiding from him must be moved to the countryside as quickly as possible. This will require substantial funds for bribes and false papers, left in clandestine locations throughout Rome. It also means that O’Flaherty (who’s been sent an envelope containing 32 human teeth by his Nazi nemesis) must leave the safety of the Vatican and put his knowledge of Rome’s back alleys to the test. He’s well aware, as the Bible verse goes, that “my father’s house has many rooms” — and right now they’re filled with men in grave danger, his “army of the attics.”
The tensions that permeate Jonathan Wilson’s THE RED BALCONY (Schocken, 272 pp., $27) derive from the “challenging ersatz outpost of the British Empire” that was early-1930s Palestine. Ivor Castle, a young Oxford-educated lawyer, is sent from England to assist in the defense of two Russian Jews accused of murdering a man who had been negotiating to allow more Jews to leave Hitler’s Germany. Hated by many local Jews who were convinced he’d entered into a pact with the devil, Haim Arlosoroff was also hated by the local Arabs for trying to increase the pace of Jewish settlement.
The case quickly becomes “a miasma of twisted, competing narratives,” with Arlosoroff’s widow at first insisting that the killers were Arabs, then insisting just as vigorously that they were Jews. A young Arab confesses, but almost immediately takes everything back. Through it all, Ivor must search for evidence in a place that challenges his own not-very-observant Jewish heritage — a place, he comes to believe, that “distorted certain personalities.” This will prove true of Ivor himself when he becomes romantically involved with a woman who could offer an alibi for his clients.
Ivor feels “as if from the moment he had stepped off his ship and into Palestine he had found not dry land but rising seas.” Enveloped in the region’s oppressive heat and cacophonous politics, he’s prey to shifting moods of uncertainty and alienation. Tel Aviv, he senses, is unregulated, “free from its moorings,” while in Jerusalem he feels “the city coil … like an animal and prepare to spring.” Will he survive to witness the resolution of his case?
An entire way of life is at risk in Hanna Pylväinen’s THE END OF DRUM-TIME (Holt, 368 pp., $28.99), in which the reindeer herders of mid-19th-century Scandinavia come up against the “civilizing” forces of the Lutheran Church and the clashing priorities of foreign governments. Her depiction of the nomadic Sámi (called Laplanders or Lapps by outsiders) is steeped in the lore and landscape of the far north, where at certain times “what counted as day was just twilight stretched thin.” These are people who live for their reindeer; people who, as one of them puts it, “see land through the eyes of reindeer.”
Pylväinen’s heroine is Willa, the teenage daughter of a charismatic preacher known as Mad Lasse, a character based on the actual historical figure Lars Lasse Laestadius. While her father seeks to “awaken” the Sámi, Willa finds herself drawn to Ivvár, the rebellious son of one of his most ardent converts, with whom she has a distinctly physical awakening. So when the Sámi leave their winter quarters near Mad Lasse’s outpost, love-stricken Willa determines to follow along, trekking hundreds of miles to the seaside, where the reindeer and their owners will stay for the summer grazing.
Defying convention, Willa learns the ways of the Sámi, but handsome Ivvár may not be so easy to master. Like his people, he “lived in the wilderness and the wilderness lived in them.” For centuries, the Sámi have relied on the isolation of the land to protect them, but when the herds begin moving again it’s clear that this strategy will no longer hold. New borders have been proclaimed and new loyalties sworn; potentially tragic choices must be made. “No one could live beneath the northern lights and the midnight sun,” Pylväinen writes, “and not come out of it sure there was something besides rationality at work.” For many, this suggests an uncanny spirituality. For others, however, that “something” may take a violent turn.
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