You think you've read every permutation of a World War II novel possible — then along comes a Venetian fisherman and his unlikely first mate, a beautiful Jewish teenaged girl on the run from the last few Nazis occupying Italy. Venerable author Martin Cruz Smith has chosen, in The Girl from Venice, to put aside his usual spy stories (e.g. Gorky Park and Three Stations) for a straightforward wartime chase-cum-romance, a slice of La Serenissima life so perfectly researched that details melt into action like the local goby fish into risotto.
Innocenzo "Cenzo" Vianello, a veteran of the war in Africa, is plying his trade one evening when a seaweed-strewn corpse floats up next to his wooden bragozzo, the Fatima. Once he realizes the corpse is alive and hears the girl say her name is Giulia Silber, chaos ensues. Cenzo winds up killing a German officer who was hunting Giulia, and their fates become intertwined. While Giulia hides out in Cenzo's very humble digs, readers learn a lot about the Italian fisherfolk trade: Fishing nets are complicated and tough to repair. Always select the female soft-shell crabs, because they're tastier. And the aforementioned goby fish can only be caught by hand, and only then with a couple of tricks. Of course Cenzo teaches his new pupil well, and before long she's an old hand.
The trick of this book is that everything is predictable, and yet nothing is stale. Of course Cenzo's brother Giorgio — a handsome war hero and actor — is a tool of the propaganda ministry. Of course the brothers Vianello, despite their humble village origins, have friends in various high places, several of them in the wrong side's high places. Of course Cenzo and Giulia fall into the kind of deep and desperate love (even when she's dressed herself in tatters and shorn her hair to better pass as a boy) that flourishes in wartime.
None of this matters, because The Girl from Venice sails on its characters' vitality: Cenzo's decency, Giulia's canny verve, Giorgio's brash ignorance, a bartender's resignation, more. It's late in the war and those still living want to survive, whether that involves turning tail (as one Nazi colonel says, "There are Germans, and there are Germans, just as there are the sane and the insane") or not: Mussolini's steadfast mistress Claretta is accompanied into uncertain exile by her closest friend Vera. The drama turns, too, from low to high. Back in the Vianello hometown of Pellestrina, Mama Sofia wants nothing more than for Cenzo to marry his younger brother Hugo's widow Celestina; there is much sighing and lots of side glances in this subplot, which ultimately reveals something to our fisherman about treachery.
On the political stage, things get tricky because Giulia knows something the Nazis and Fascists wish she didn't. Cenzo has no skin in anyone's game, something we know because he was dishonorably discharged as a pilot for refusing to use mustard gas. (And, of course, that flying experience comes in handy on a covert mission to Switzerland.) Suspense, romance, spying, action — this novel has a little bit of everything, and it works. Cruz Smith is a master of quick scene changes. We zip from the shoe-sucking mud of the Venetian waterfront to a Salò salon so quickly that there's no time to gather disbelief.
That said, two stories of sincere love anchor all this havoc. The first is, of course, the youthful, sweet lust between Cenzo and Giulia, whose attraction cannot be stopped by separation of any kind. But the second is a more complicated love, between an Argentinian woman named Maria Paz and her consul husband, who's been rendered all but bedridden by a stroke. Maria works as a master forger in the German stronghold of Salò; she could easily trade on her connections to Mussolini to secure a place for herself with the safety seekers — but she refuses to abandon her challenged spouse. It's a delicate counterpoint to Cenzo and Giulia's romance and a reminder that war affects people of all ages and backgrounds.
It's also a delicately balanced bass note to a book that lives mainly on the surface, even when its characters are trawling the depths or skimming the clouds. The Girl from Venice should appeal broadly to fans of World War II fiction, but it will also serve as a tonic to those who are weary of terribly complex plots requiring flow charts and genealogies. Writers are often exhorted to write the book they want to read, and it seems Martin Cruz Smith has done just that, to everyone's benefit.
Bethanne Patrick is a freelance writer and critic who tweets@TheBookMaven.