In the Eternal City, no secret stays hidden forever…
Lottie Archer arrives in Rome excited to begin her new job as an archivist. When she discovers a valuable fifteenth-century painting, she is drawn to find out more about the woman who left it behind, Nina Lawrence.
Nina seems to have led a rewarding and useful life, restoring Italian gardens to their full glory following the destruction of World War Two. So why did no one attend her funeral in 1978?
In exploring Nina’s past, Lottie unravels a tragic love story beset by the political turmoil of post-war Italy. And as she edges closer to understanding Nina, she begins to confront the losses in her own life.
As the story starts we learn that Lottie, who was abandoned at birth, brought up in a series of care homes and foster families and has clearly been emotionally scarred by her childhood experiences, has been married to Tom for just three weeks. They’d met nine months earlier at a friend’s wedding and she’d been surprised that, very unusually, she’d felt free to talk to him about her past. However, as she lived in London and he in Rome, they could meet only infrequently so their courtship had been a long-distance affair. As this was repeat of a pattern in her previous relationships, it was something which suited her reluctance to allow herself to get too close to people lest they abandon her. But Tom had ‘wooed her with tenderness .. and stealth’ and, to her amazement, she found herself accepting his marriage proposal, although her old securities did make her question how well they really knew each other. Employed by the British Council, he’d been living in Rome for fifteen years and had had a long-term relationship with Clare but that had ended three years earlier when she’d found someone else. He admitted the break-up had been hard but convinced Lottie that he had now recovered and, pointing out to her that they both had baggage from the past, suggested that they should ‘just cut off previous labels’ and start afresh.
So Lottie has now moved to Rome, into the apartment her husband had shared with Clare but determined to try to overcome her insecurities. She’s excited by her new job and the first task she’s given is to archive a collection of unsorted papers and documents which related to deaths of British nationals in Rome between 1880-1980. The final two boxes were labelled as belonging to Nina Maria Lawrence, 1940-1978. With no known relatives or other claimants to collect them, they had been held since her murder which, as Lottie soon discovers, was never properly investigated and remains unsolved.
Among the contents is a notebook stuffed with extra papers, botanical drawings, pressed flowers, letters and photographs journal and what appears to be a valuable fifteenth century, exquisitely painted portrait of the Virgin Mary. As Lottie attempts to establish the provenance of the painting and begins to read all the documents she soon becomes aware that there is a mystery surrounding what happened to Nina and she becomes determined to unravel her story and, finally, to expose the truth and give her a voice. However, she soon realises that there are those who seem determined to do all they can to thwart her investigations and even Tom seems intent on trying to persuade her not to continue with them. What is it that people are so determined to keep hidden?
This complex story is told in two timelines, using Nina’s first person narrative to reveal the details of the events which shaped the final two years of her life, whilst adopting a third-person narrative to reveal Lottie’s present day story. Stories which move between different time-frames can often feel confusing but throughout my reading I admired the many ways in which the author used the switches between the characters’ perspectives to not only increase the tension of her storytelling, but to gradually reveal some of the unexpected parallels between the experiences of the two women. To share what any of these are would be to risk introducing spoilers, suffice it to say that I very much appreciated how they added layers of dimension to the subtle interweaving of their individual stories, offering the insights needed to understand why Lottie became so determined to tell Nina’s story.
Set in the late 1970s, Nina’s story unfolds against the violent political disorder of that period and the author used her research in a very effective way to evoke the tensions and concerns which were being experienced, not only within Italy but, fearing the spread of communism, within the international community. This was the time of the kidnapping of Aldo Moro (Italy’s Prime Minister) so the author was able to incorporate into her storytelling the febrile power struggles between the opposing political factions, the murky world of political and financial corruption and the dangerous undercover world of espionage. She added to this already incendiary mix the equally powerful manoeuvrings of the Vatican and the Catholic Church, demonstrating the complex interplay between state and religion and, alongside this macro influence, the internal politics of the Vatican. These themes were also included in the present day section of the story, where some of her characters debate the continuing existence of ‘bribery, corruptions, jobs for the boys and sparse tax revenues’ and wonder how much has really changed – something I think will ring bells for many readers!
Other themes which ran thought both storylines included explorations of the damaging effects of secrecy, betrayal, lies and guilt, the importance of family, the human need to search for answers and to find love. There were also reflections on whether it’s ever possible for ‘outsiders’ (as both Nina and Lottie were) to fully understand the subtle complexities of another country’s culture, language and social mores – something I find as fascinating as debating whether we can ever fully understand what makes another person tick! I also enjoyed the ways in which the author included some interesting facts about botany, the planning and restoration of formal gardens and the fascinating world of art, including some of the factors which help to establish whether a painting is genuine or a forgery.
Although quite early on I’d picked up a number of clues which had hinted at some of the revelations which would finally emerge, this didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of this engaging story. For the most part I found the plotting credible although I thought it was, at times, a little uneven in its pacing and I did find that a couple of the developments which propelled it forward required some suspension of disbelief. However, the characters (a satisfying mix of likeable, disagreeable and just plain loathsome!) were well-portrayed and the eventual denouement felt satisfying – and I loved being transported to the glorious city of Rome for a few hours!
With thanks to the publisher and Readers First for my review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Published by Corvus (Imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd) 3rd June 2021
ISBN: 978-1-78649-532-7 Hardback