Devotion: whose, for whom, or what? In Italy, Aldo Fiori’s for Mussolini; in London, Peter Locke’s for negro jazz singer Mabel Zachary; and, spanning both countries, Tom Locke’s for Nenna Fiori. But Nenna is devoted to her father, a veteran of Caporetto, an engineer who has drained the swamps outside Rome, designed and built new towns, one of Mussolini’s rehabilitation projects after Italy’s humiliation in WW1. Hard work and obedience to the Duce are all that is required to make Italy great according to Aldo; the fact that the family are Jews he considers irrelevant until Mussolini revokes Jews’ Italian citizenship and places restrictions on them: not our sort of Jew, insists Aldo; there have been Jews in Rome since before the time of Jesus Christ.
The Fioris are cousins of Nadine Purefoy, Tom and his sister Kitty’s adoptive mother in London. Readers of Louisa Young’s two previous novels My Dear I Wanted to Tell You and The Heroes’ Welcome will remember Nadine and her husband Riley, whose jaw was shattered at Passchendaele and reconstructed by pioneer surgeon Harold Gillies. Devotion covers the years 1928-39. Towards the end of the book, Gillies’ handiwork is smashed when Riley defends the Jews in a pub altercation, for Nadine, too, is a Jewess. Gillies proposes a completely new reconstruction: “we’re much better at it that we used to be,” he comforts Riley.
The secrets, longings and traumas of the English and Italian families are played out against social change in Britain, when old boundaries were breaking down, and the situation was deteriorating in Europe. Each person has to decide who or what is most important to them. This is a beautiful book, written with integrity, humour, and depth of feeling: an explosive mix of passion, race and politics.