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Onyx reviews: The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 9/24/2016

Most famous for his novels set in Russia featuring Arkady Renko, Martin Cruz Smith strikes out in several new directions with his latest book, set in April 1945 in northern Italy during the final weeks of the German occupation.

The story focuses on two characters: Cenzo Vianello, a simple fisherman (his full name is, symbolically, Innocenzo) and Giulia Silber, a young Jewish woman who escapes from her captors after the rest of her family is killed. 

Cenzo finds her in the lagoon one night while he's out on his fishing rounds. At first, he thinks she's dead, too, and for a while she refuses to communicate with him, but they gradually break through their nervous tension and become friends. Though the Germans are actively searching for her, Cenzo makes the risky decision to protect her, keeping her aboard his fishing boat (Fatima, which translates as Captivating) as an apprentice.

Cenzo is one of three sons of a fisherman. His younger brother Hugo was killed when an American pilot strafed their boat while they were fishing. His other brother, Giorgio, is a famous actor who stole Cenzo's wife and took her to make a film in Milan, where she was killed by a bomb on set. Naturally, this has caused some tension within the Vianello family. Also, Giorgio is acting as a mouthpiece for the fascists. For his part, Cenzo was drummed out of the army after he refused to drop poison gas on the enemy.

Once he understands the danger Giulia is in, Cenzo decides she needs to leave the Venice area. He entrusts her to a smuggler friend named Russo, but he hears soon after unconfirmed reports that Russo has been killed. Giula's whereabouts are unknown. Cenzo leaves the Lido—a symbolic location as it is a sand bar that protects the famous city of Venice from inundation by the sea—to go to SalÚ, where the Nazis have established a wartime capitol, to try to find Giulia.

The story has a fairy tale atmosphere as Cenzo wanders around the occupied city in a dream-like state. Everyone seems interested in his plight, and history is happening all around him. Mussolini is omnipresent. There are several partisan groups at odds with each other ready to kill anyone from the other factions. The Argentineans are the only ones who have an embassy in SalÚ—no other countries recognize it as a capitol—but the ambassador is suffering from dementia. Everyone says the war is over, but no one seems to be willing to actually call it quits. Cenzo is thrown into this mix of politicians, fascists, soldiers, spies, actors, directors, femmes fatales and freedom-fighters, a little bit dazed and confused by it all. There are rumors aplenty, but very little verifiable information.

Once he tracks down Giulia, he has to protect her from the Germans who are doggedly determined to exterminate her even as they prepare to dismantle their occupation and retreat north. Cenzo's wartime experience comes in handy when it comes time to flee. He and Giulia are both artistic, literate and passionate individuals who become united by Cenzo's love for fishing. They might seem like an unlikely couple, but in this charming novel—a markedly more uplifting work than most of Smith's other novels—readers will root for them to end up living happily ever after.

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