Published by Simon & Schuster on October 18, 2016
The Girl from Venice is a standalone novel. I love Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko series and I wish he had dished out another Renko novel (if only because I prefer his crime stories to his war stories), but I nevertheless enjoyed this story of an Italian fisherman who must deal with his love for his dead wife, his unwanted commitment to his dead brother’s wife, his animosity toward his living brother, and his unexpected attachment to a younger woman.
Innocenzo Vianello (known to friends as Cenzo) has taken up the family tradition of earning a living from the sea. World War II is coming to an end and Cenzo, who finds it confusing for a nation to change sides in the middle of a war, has no use for the Germans, the Americans, the partisans, or the Italian government. The war claimed the life of his wife and one of his two brothers. Cenzo’s mother wants him to marry his dead brother’s beautiful widow (it’s customary in his village), but Cenzo feels no desire for her. Before she died, his wife left him for his living brother (an actor who manages propaganda for Mussolini) and, even if Cenzo had a taste for a new relationship, his dead brother’s widow bores him.
While fishing one night, Cenzo encounters a young woman named Giulia who is being hunted by Nazis. For reasons he does not quite understand, Cenzo hides Giulia in his fishing shack. Giulia is from a prosperous Jewish family in Venice. Cenzo is from Pellestrina, “which was like saying they were not only from opposite sides of the lagoon but from different worlds.” Giulia’s father was working to end the war, but he was the victim of treachery. The man responsible for her father’s death cannot rest safely unless Giulia dies, as well.
The Girl from Venice is a love story and a war story, but as you would expect from Smith, it is more than that. Circumstances converge to roil Cenzo’s life at the end of the war, forcing him to make difficult choices when he wants nothing more than to be left alone. Although a veteran of the Italian army, Cenzo is far from heroic. He makes sarcastic remarks about Mussolini (particularly when he’s drunk) but he isn’t about to take an active role in resisting the fascists. His goal is to survive the war in peace, yet he risks his life early in the novel by acting with uncharacteristic violence.
Smith gives authenticity to the characters and to the story with an impressive display of fishing lore. I like the contrasts Smith draws -- between brothers, between the different worlds of city life and village life, between the knowledge acquired in school and the knowledge acquired by a lifetime of fishing, between a world that seems small to a traveler and a lagoon that seems big to someone who has always lived next to it. I also like Cenzo’s view of Italy as a crab pot, its occupants “climbing over each other and shedding our own shells, Fascists one moment, Reds the next.”
The story is less suspenseful than a Renko novel. It didn’t trigger the same emotional response that I expect from a Renko story. Its ending is broadly predictable, although the details are unexpected. Still, The Girl from Venice tells an intriguing story about a likable man who needs to put the past in the past and find a way to move forward.