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History and Culture

BookMark: "The Garden Of Angels" By David Hewson

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Paolo Uccello is dying. He’s spent the majority of his life building up the fortunes of his family’s weaving business in Venice. Now, he has one last thing to do: Tell his story.

Paolo’s grandson, Nico, has been suspended from school. A so-called “friend” of his was caught bullying a Jewish classmate while Nico stood by and did nothing. With his schedule suddenly empty, Nico visits his grandfather in the hospital every day.

Paolo has written his story down and enclosed it in a series of envelopes. He gives them to Nico one by one. The letters tell the story of Venice near the end of World War II. It was a time of Nazi occupation. It was a time when Italy was divided into Nazi collaborators and resisters. It was a time of secrets and lies. It was a time of death.

In “The Garden of Angels” author David Hewson pulls readers inexorably into its drama. Two stories are being told at the same time. The first is Paolo’s very personal recollections of Venice. The second is about Nico’s reactions to his grandfather’s story, which are also very personal. Each story informs the other, though Nico’s reading of history obviously has a more immediate effect on him. Still, readers feel Nico’s reactions throughout the historical portions of the book, including admiration, disgust, revulsion, fondness, and despair.

Much of the history in this novel was unknown to me. I, of course, knew of the pogroms that slaughtered millions of Jews throughout central and eastern Europe, but I was not aware that they had extended into Italy as well. Learning about a Jewish collaborator charged with rounding up other Jews for the ovens caused a visceral reaction. To some extent, I was unsurprised. Venality is hardly a rare trait. I realized I had subconsciously refused to believe such traitors existed. “The Garden” opened my eyes. This is, of course, part of the majesty of well-crafted fiction.

Hewson could have turned his research into a history of Venice during that time-period. A city torn between Nazi occupiers and American and British armies advancing from the south. But I doubt I would’ve read that, though, I’m confident Hewson would have made it interesting.

Fiction allows writers to share stories from the past with people who would never pick up a history book. Fiction shares truth through the windows of stories and helps us relate to each other. Paolo and Nico resonated with me because of their stories. They came to life in my mind. Their experiences expanded my knowledge, touched my heart, and reshaped part of my mind.

“The Garden of Angels” is outstanding. I’m not the same person I was before reading the book. The events may be dark, the truths may be hard to face, and the choices the characters make might not be the choices you’d make. But the power of this book is undeniable, and the characters are unforgettable.

Reviewer David Marvin is an insurance agent with the Robert Mannino Insurance Agency in State College. He’s also a volunteer radio host for WPSU.

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