Saturday, December 7, 2013

Book Review: Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

For our latest book club meeting, we read Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières. Here is the Goodreads blurb:
Corelli's Mandolin is set in the early days of the second world war, before Benito Mussolini invaded Greece. Dr Iannis practices medicine on the island of Cephalonia, accompanied by his daughter, Pelagia, to whom he imparts much of his healing art. Even when the Italians do invade, life isn't so bad--at first anyway. The officer in command of the Italian garrison is the cultured Captain Antonio Corelli, who responds to a Nazi greeting of "Heil Hitler" with his own "Heil Puccini", and whose most precious possession is his mandolin. It isn't long before Corelli and Pelagia are involved in a heated affair--despite her engagement to a young fisherman, Mandras, who has gone off to join Greek partisans. Love is complicated enough in wartime, even when the lovers are on the same side. And for Corelli and Pelagia, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate the minefield of allegiances, both personal and political, as all around them atrocities mount, former friends become enemies and the ugliness of war infects everyone it touches. 

Read on for my full, spoiler-free review.

Overall Impression
This was quite an interesting book, though not exactly what I was expecting. The first shock is the implication that Corelli and his mandolin would play a huge role, given the title after all, but then seeing him appear fully 1/3 into the story. Nevertheless, the story is still engaging as it instead revolves around the relationship between Pelagia and Corelli. The characters are perfectly believable and while they do use many foreign words (primarily Greek and Italian), one can usually tell from context what is meant.

The story follows Pelagia, a young woman from a small town in an island in Greece, and her friends and family, as well as a group of Italian soldiers, notably Carlos and Corelli, who's history brings them to Greece. I would divide the story into three arcs. First, we have the setup where we see Pelagia and her family on the one hand and the Italian soldiers on the other. Second, we have the arrival of the Italians in Greece and that brings Pelagia and Corelli together. This felt, to me, the longest part of the book, but it could also be that I was more frequently interrupted. The final stage sees the withdrawal of the Italians and then Pelagia's life story and that of her friends and family in an accelerated pace. This last part reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude since it recounts the family's story over several generations.

The main character in this story is Pelagia, though her father, Carlos, Corelli, Mandras, and many others play key roles. When I started reading I fully expected Corelli to be the main character, given the book's title. However, we only see the first mention of Corelli at about page 100 and he doesn't even appear until nearly 60 pages later, or about a third of the way in the story. Once you realize that, it's clear that the story isn't about Corelli, it's about Pelagia's relationship with him.

My favorite character, though, is probably Dr. Iannis, Pelagia's father. He is a learned man and very funny. It was great seeing all the little pranks and harmless tricks he played on Corelli and the rest of the soldiers when they occupied their town.

Setting / World Building
I have never been to Greece or to war so I have no experience with that. This story is set around the time of the second World War, but mainly told through the eyes of the Italian soldiers or through the people of a small town. The ravages of war are clear and apparent, however. In the later third of the book, we see time fly by as we are told the story of the characters and their children and their children's children. About 30 or so pass in relatively rapid succession so we see the development of the town and the introduction of new technologies and philosophies. I personally liked when technological innovations are presented since the author places them perfectly in the context of their time. My favorite moment is when the British spy is praising his radio, which by "weighing in at a paltry thirty-two pounds, it was a miracle of miniaturization."

Final Thoughts
In the end, this book was a love story set in historical times. It was interesting to see how people lived and reacted to the Second World War and the characters were entertaining to read about. I liked this book and keep meaning to look up all the historical references thrown in the story! It makes me curious to see other historical fiction, particularly Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, because what better way to retell the Napoleonic wars than with DRAGONS?

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