Review by Kate Hopkins
Publisher: Harbour Books August 2021
ISBN: 978-1-905128341 PB
Vanessa Nicolson’s fictional debut explores a mother and daughter’s mutual fascination with Italy – and its men. In London in 1946, Mary seeks relief from her dull marriage by befriending her motherly Italian neighbour, and finds herself increasingly drawn to Signora Baldoni’s son Pippo. Twenty years later, Mary’s daughter Cara escapes romantic disappointment by taking a secretarial job in Florence. After the great flood of November 1966, she discovers a new sense of purpose by helping to salvage the city’s books and art treasures. But will her impetuous decision to sleep with a handsome Florentine student on the eve of the flood return to haunt her?
Nicolson’s scene-setting is consistently excellent: drab post-war Clerkenwell with its ‘wet lanes and sooty bricks’; Signora Baldoni’s ‘loud, chaotic household’, full of laughter and delicious food; beautiful Florence whose paintings capture ‘ordinariness present within the divine’. Her descriptions of the flood – ‘the street was a mass of dark, swirling water’ – and Cara’s subsequent work as a Mud Angel (as the volunteers restoring the city were nicknamed) are especially good. She also vividly evokes her heroines’ emotions, including Mary’s loneliness as her love affair implodes, and Cara’s yearning for romantic and artistic fulfilment.
However, the novel has a significant weakness: its male characters are unsatisfactory. Mary’s husband Geoffrey and Cara’s confidant Tony have their appealing moments, but often feel more like types – the ‘boring husband’, the ‘gay best friend’ – than fully realized individuals. As for Pippo and Cara’s lover Gianni, they are little more than caricature Mediterranean males: charming and flirtatious, but also hypocritical, sex-obsessed and profoundly selfish. Their limitations means that the novel’s romantic element falls flat, and that Mary and Cara’s behaviour can seem foolish.
Fortunately, Nicolson’s vivid imagery and compassion for her heroines’ dilemmas ensures that Angels of Mud, even if it never fulfils its potential, still has a strong appeal.