Last Train from Liguria, by Christine Dwyer Hickey (Atlantic, £12.99) is a paean for Riviera lives derailed by Mussolini, a story of long-held secrets and a governess’s heroic effort to save two half-Jewish children from the fate of most Italians registered “e” for ebreo.
Although Hickey evokes the sunsoaked glory of pre-war Bordighera: “the Roman palms… the cobbled roofscape… the beneficent sea”, her novel is essentially one of shadows and clouded inevitability. The household of wealthy Jewish heiress Signora Lami is troubled from the start. She is young, widowed and solitary for all her social standing. Her small son, Alessandro, is “not quite right”.
The tale is teased out in episodic fragments involving key protagonists and their supporting cast, some from the 1930s, others from the ’90s.
There’s the spinster governess, Bella Stuart, who is forced to leave England by her “old goat” of a doctor; Alessandro’s inscrutable music teacher, Maestro Edward, whose identity conceals a deadly past; a nun; a nurse or two; a couple of raffish American maiden cousins; and Anna, a flaky young Irish art teacher who, come 1995, has wasted five of her best years on a married man. In a Dublin hospital, the aged grandmother who brought her up is waiting to die as many questions hang unanswered in the air.
Hickey displays a startling gift for depicting the parts of human nature that are oblique, suppressed and rarely voiced. And Last Train speaks up for those whose part in saving Jewish lives was lost in more than translation.