The Girl From the Paradise Ballroom by Alison Love Offers a Unique World War II Story
World War II in Britain is a period that remains very popular among writers, as author Alison Love points out. But with her novel The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom, Love has proven that there continue to be unique ways of telling the stories of that time. This is the intriguing tale of a dance hostess, Olivia, who meets a singer, Antonio, at the rundown Paradise Ballroom in the late 1930s. Olivia is a girl who has broken free from her small town existence to take her chances in London, while Antonio hails from a close-knit family of Italian immigrants who live in Soho but maintain strong ties with Lazio in Italy, often arranging marriages with people still living there and endorsing the fascism that dominated Italy at the time. Despite professions that bring them into close orbit, Olivia and Antonio are on different trajectories, but the war – naturally – shakes everything up, and their paths eventually become entwined. It’s difficult to say more without giving away the plot, but The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is not just another love story with a predictable outcome. It’s well-researched, fast-paced, and authentic.
Love originally planned to write a novel about family secrets, centering on a young woman in present-day Britain who discovers that her grandfather was an Italian immigrant, imprisoned as an enemy alien during World War II.
“I intended much of the narrative to focus on the aftermath of the illicit affair between Antonio and Olivia, rather than the affair itself,” she explains. “As soon as I started my research into the Italian community in London, though, I discovered what an absorbing and sometimes heart-breaking story it was. I was especially struck by the way ordinary Italians were persuaded to support Mussolini’s fascist regime, which proved [to be] their downfall once war broke out. It wasn’t a story I’d come across before, and I quickly realised that if I wanted to do it justice I needed to give my novel a shorter, more focused time frame.”
The details of Italian immigrants living in London that Love portrays in The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom were very vivid and believable. I asked her how she approached shaping that aspect of the novel.
“When I was growing up I had a school friend whose parents were Italian, and I spent a lot of time with her family, including a month in their village in Lazio one summer,” she says. “That experience gave me real insight into the dynamics of home life in Italy: I don’t think I could have created the Trombettas [Antonio’s family] without it, even though they’re very different from my friend’s family.
“Reading about the long history of Italians in Britain also helped me understand what life was like for immigrant families. Like my school friend’s father, many Italians left, not from choice, but because they couldn’t find work. Once they were in Britain they had to offer something distinctive so they would be tolerated by native workers: one reason why many Italians sold roast chestnuts or made ice cream. You can see why Italian families felt insecure about their lives and their status.”
Although the time period is many decades removed from our own, the similarities between attitudes to immigrants both then and now are striking, reminding readers that this is an issue people have been working through for a very long time. Love says she believes the experience of Italian immigrants that she shows in her novel is very much a typical one. “We seem to witness it time and again: the economic and social factors that drive migration, the conflicts immigrants face between integration and preserving their own values, the suspicion that established communities feel for outsiders. Then as now, you can’t help noticing the role of politicians and the press, and the temptation to play on public mistrust by painting immigrants as somehow other, a threat to ‘our’ society. It certainly happened in the late 1930s, when the papers whipped up fierce prejudice against Italians in Britain. That was one of the factors which made mass internment acceptable, with all its ensuing tragedies. Immigration is such an emotive issue that in some ways I think it’s easier to write about it from an historical perspective. You can explore it with greater objectivity, and hope that your readers recognise the parallels with the present day.”
Love’s depiction of London in the years leading up to World War II and during the war and its aftermath feels very authentic.
“I’ve always been intrigued by that period,” she says. “So over the years I’ve read lots about it: not just history, but plenty of novels, which give you a real feel for the behaviour and the language of the time. I’m thinking of writers like Elizabeth Bowen, Aldous Huxley and Rosamond Lehmann, as well as Dodie Smith’s wonderful I Capture the Castle, which I’ve loved since I was a teenager. Dodie Smith also wrote a fascinating series of autobiographies. She worked as a shop girl before becoming a successful playwright, so like my central character Olivia she moved from living in grubby bedsits to making glittering appearances in London’s West End.
“Living in London – which I’ve done since my 20s – also helps. Although districts like Soho, home of the Trombetta family, have altered enormously even in my lifetime, you get a strong sense of what they must have been like when you stroll about the streets and go into the cafés. And there are aspects of London that don’t change. It’s still a hugely vibrant city, with a mix of rich and poor, glossy and shabby, and it’s still a melting pot for many different cultures.”
In addition to drawing on her personal experiences, Love explains that she reads vast amounts whenever she starts a historical novel. “I have an ever-expanding bookshelf and I’m always carrying bags of books to and from the University of London Library in Bloomsbury. At the start I’ll read pretty much anything about the period in question, before homing in on the specifics I need to know and making the detailed notes I draw on while I’m writing.
“I also keep my eyes peeled for TV or radio programmes that might be helpful: the idea of making Olivia a dance hostess came from watching a BBC documentary about the history of ballroom dancing in Britain. And of course, the internet is a wonderful resource. It’s fantastic being able to look up so many things without leaving your desk: which foods were rationed in Britain in 1940? What did gas masks designed for children look like? I know that the information you find on the internet isn’t always reliable, but for details like that it’s invaluable.”
I was pleased to hear that Love is currently researching another novel set in World War II. She shares that she’s especially interested in how this war in particular had such an impact on ordinary people, transforming their lives in ways they could never have expected. This is a theme that plays out strongly in The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom – especially in the life of Antonio’s sister Filomena, who I’m sure could not have envisioned how different things would become for her in just a few short years.
The Girl from the Paradise Ballroom is now available from Broadway Books.
About the contributor: Claire Morris is the web features editor for the Historical Novel Society. She served as the managing editor of Solander from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences.