Thursday, 13 May 2021

What I'm reading: Dark deeds at the Vatican

Daniel Silva: THE ORDER

We’ve met Pope Paul VII before: Daniel Silva’s fictional successor to John Paul II, he has survived several assaults on the Vatican, all thwarted by Israeli master-spy Gabriel Allon. Holidaying in Venice when His Holiness dies of a supposed stroke, Gabriel is invited to investigate the possibility that the pontiff was murdered by enemies within the Church who are plotting to manipulate the conclave that will elect his successor. A secret gospel has been discovered in the archives which could undermine Catholicism’s foundations.

There are brief excursions to Florence, Zurich and Hitler’s old “roost” in Berchtesgaden, but most of the action takes place in Rome where a right-wing coup threatens not just the papacy, but the governments of Italy and other EU states. “The backbiting bureaucrats of the Curia” are disturbingly credible. Silva reminds us that the Vatican has a dismal history with the Jewish nation, dating all the way back to the crucifixion of Christ. Let’s not forget that Pius XII cosied up to Mussolini and Hitler and avoided harsh condemnation of the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Pope John Paul I: was he murdered?
Alternative gospels and dark doings in the Holy See have provided fodder for historians and many other writers of fiction (including Dan Brown – twice!). There was much speculation that John Paul I, Pope for only 33 days in 1978, was murdered by rogue cardinals; this theory provided part of the plot of Francis Ford Coppola’s third Godfather movie.

Outlandish as it ought to be, The Order has the ring of believability; it’s almost as pacy as a Bond film. This is the most enthralling thriller I’ve read since Gabriel Allon’s previous misadventure and is unlikely to be equalled until his next one.

Monday, 10 May 2021

LILLIAN : 4-star review on Amazon!

4.0 out of 5 stars An elegantly-written guide to Italy and the past

Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 6 May 2021

There’s a long and honourable tradition in literature of chilly Englishwomen finding themselves abroad and this is in many ways a fine addition to that canon. It’s very well-written, perfectly paced and finely plotted. It takes the reader through what in other hands would be a series of melodramatic events with a restraint and an elegance reflective of the main character herself.

David Gee says in his afterword that he began writing the novel in the 1970s, and it has clearly benefited from its long gestation. The characters and their attitudes are convincingly of their time and remind us that the 1960s were not just the Swinging Sixties but a period in which many adults had been shaped by living through the Depression and two world wars.

Gee does a good job of depicting his main characters’ disapproval of homosexuality without endorsing it, as he does with similar lightness of touch when it comes to other characters’ approval of violence and murder. It is unfortunate though that the resolutions of some of the characters’ stories could be seen as confirming some of the prejudices depicted in the novel.

Despite its twentieth-century setting, Lillian and the Italians is essentially a historical novel, at its best when reflecting on the workings of a society that is not our own. Gee shows himself a sure guide here to both Italy and the past.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

What I'm reading: Silver spoon tarnished by tragedy

ANNE GLENCONNER: Lady in Waiting

When her memoir first came out, Lady Anne Glenconner was a frequent presence on chat-show sofas, high-lighting two incidents from her long and hectic life. She was a friend as well as a lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret for many years. And Colin Tennant, Anne’s husband, took her to see a live sex show on their Parisian honeymoon.

Growing up on a Norfolk estate near Sandringham, Anne was a childhood playmate of the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. She is careful not to gossip about Our Sovereign Lady, and what she reveals about Margaret is not exactly hot news: Tony Snowdon was bisexual and prodigiously unfaithful; Roddy Llewellyn, more than Peter Townsend, was the great love of the Princess’s life. From TV documentaries we know that Margaret was haughty and demanding; Lady G. suggests that she could be (selectively) a kind and supportive friend.

A party on Mustique in the 1980s: Mick
Jagger, Lady Anne and Rupert Everett
Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner, owes his fame to his canny purchase of the island of Mustique in 1958 (for £45,000) and the parties he hosted there and elsewhere. He was not the best choice of husband – unstable, decadent, flamboyantly camp – but their marriage lasted for decades and ended with his death, not divorce. Busy with their social lives and developing Mustique, the Tennants largely left their children to be raised by nannies and servants, as they themselves had been. Silver spoons turned to dross when tragedy struck their three sons: HIV/Aids, drug addiction and a devastating motorbike accident. Anne had to mother her boys more as adults than she had as kids.

These family dramas are the most appealing element of the book, more than the celebrity/royalty tittle-tattle. The book has been dictated rather than written, which gives it a chatty readability. At its worst, there are gushing echoes of Barbara Cartland. At its best, Lady in Waiting vividly – and not always attractively – reinforces Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that “The rich are different from you and me.” Very different.