The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

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The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith is the kind of throwback war time romance thriller that can get lost in the abundance of cheap and tawdry works that pass for romance in the current marketplace. With unforgettable characters and impossible odds. The Girl From Venice is a book about war and betrayal. About heroism and regret and the one chance at redemption.

It is occupied Venice and the small port town of La Serenissima in 1945. The war is coming to a dismal and brutal end and the German army is retreating. Mussolini is still going about boasting and roaring about victory but the allied forces are on his doorstep. Italy, already in German hands, is about to fall to the allies. The people of La Serenissima find themselves caught between the Fascists, the Germans, the Partisans and the oncoming American army. Their only hope is to survive these final moments of the end of the war. But the German army has other ideas and is on a last ditch effort to erase what they have done. They are rounding up and killing the remaining Jews in Venice and for his part, Mussolini is hoarding all the gold he can to escape. Against this backdrop, the fisherman Cenzo goes about his day, gathering his catch. Until the night he finds a young woman’s body floating in the lagoon and a German gunboat coming up fast. What Cenzo does next will change his life forever, and that of the young Jewish girl he pulls from the water.

“…Ah, this is, I take it, your ‘nephew’. My God. And unless I have completely lost my eyesight and my wits, ‘he’ is a ‘she.”
‘So now you know,’ Cenzo said.
‘This is, you understand, a deception that won’t last a minute in daylight.’
‘We’ve done pretty well so far.’
‘Well, dear boy, the Germans smell something. They found the body of an SS officer down a well. Do you know anything about that ?’
‘No,’ Cenzo said.
‘It was self-defense,’ said Guilia.
Nido rubbed his face. ‘It just gets worse. Cenzo, how could you get into so much trouble in the middle of a fucking lagoon?…”

Cenzo finds himself embroiled in a end of the war mission to protect the young girl Giulia. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Giulia may hold the secret to who the betrayer among her people was. Cenzo finds himself in a place where there is no one to trust and with an overwhelming need to save this young girl. This will lead him into a world of broken promises, black market gold and forgeries and the secrets hidden in the Venice Lagoon. But Cenzo Vianello has secrets of his own.

“…Actually, there were three Vianello brothers,’ said Cenzo. ‘You can see us on the sail of our boat, putti da mare. Giorgio was the oldest, I was in the middle, and the youngest was Hugo. We were attacked by an Allied fighter plane. I did a painting of it. I am on deck, bleeding and praying to the Virgin, and Giorgio is in the water trying to save Hugo. The problem is I never prayed to the Virgin and Hugo and Giorgio were reversed. It wasn’t Giorgio trying to save Hugo, it was Hugo trying to drown Giorgio and himself. You have to ask yourself: Why would Hugo do that…”

Now Cenzo must turn to the brother he hates and the Nazis he cannot trust to save a girl he does not truly know.

Yes I know, another book with the word Girl in the title. Aren’t we all just sitting back and waiting on the blockbuster outdoor thriller titled, The Girl who took a shit in the Woods? But The Girl from Venice is nothing like those books. It is a novel of war and family and hope. And the damage all three can wreak. In fact the girl, Guilia, literally disappears for a sizable portion of the novel. So no, the book is not really about the girl from Venice. It is about the man from La Serenissima and the path he takes to rescue the girl. And in doing so, may finally rescue himself.

I have seen character growth over the course of a series, but rarely have I seen such growth in a character over the course of a single book. But the kicker to that is, that there was truly no growth at all. It was always there. As a reader we prejudge characters by their profession, their race and their initial words and actions. Our prejudices set the stage for the twists and turns that the novel will eventually take. It is slight of hand, the writer employs. A cheap magician’s trick but we often play along.

Martin Cruz Smith does none of this. You are told from the outset who and what Cenzo is. But his slow movement and quiet but firm voice leads you to think he is nothing but an uneducated fisherman. An assumption made by the German gunship crew and as a reader you buy into it. Even Guilia, when she first meets him, sees him this way. But as the tale moves along you see more and more of the character and there is an integrity about him. A powerful sense of loss that has somehow become his strength. From the deaths of his brother and his wife and the betrayal that has marked him. From his decision to not murder an entire village and retire from the war. He is marked as a fool and a coward. But nothing could be further from the truth.

I had an overwhelming sense of Casablanca as I read this novel. Cruz has created a truly remarkable novel of love and fortitude and of hope in the face of despair.

And hope is a good thing.

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