As war takes over Europe, and Italy’s fascist regime moves in step with Nazi Germany, the youngsters see the world through opposing ideological perspectives… will they ever find each other again and can they cross the political divide?
Set against the backdrop of a country torn between its fascination and hatred of fascism, Pippo and Clara is the second emotionally powerful novel from Diana Rosie, a copywriter by trade whose critically acclaimed debut novel, Alberto’s Lost Birthday, featured an old man and his grandson on a quest to uncover his past which was lost in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.
This new tale, set amidst the tensions and terrors of wartime Italy, brings the same masterful blend of elegant storytelling, exquisite characterisation and astute psychological intensity that is fast becoming the hallmark of Rosie’s clever and compassionate writing.
At the heart of the story are Clara and Pippo Di Rocco, two Romani youngsters who are aged just ten and seven respectively when they arrive in the city from the countryside with their widowed mother in 1938.
Six years earlier, their beloved father was attacked and killed near their home, and Clara and Pippo’s mother vowed that her two children would always be tied to their parents by ‘a circle of love’ with Clara sworn to look after her younger brother.
But in 1938, Mussolini is in power and war is not far away and the Di Rocco family have arrived in the city carrying their few possessions. On their first night, Clara, a quiet and thoughtful girl, is finding their change of home to a dirty, bleak, one-room apartment hard to accept, but her chirpy, chatty little brother sleeps the sleep of an innocent child.
When their Mamma fails to return from an evening trip out to find some sewing work, both Clara and Pippo go separately in search of her. At the entrance to the apartment block, Clara turns right, drawn by the scents from the flower sellers’ baskets, while Pippo heads left, eager to find something to eat and certain that he had glimpsed his mother amongst the crowds.
And their destinies will be decided by those seemingly unimportant choices as lost and bewildered Clara is taken in by a childless, middle class couple whose membership of the fascist party is not a ‘true’ one but merely a ‘meal ticket’ to the signore’s job with the government.
Pippo, meanwhile, finds sanctuary with a young Communist couple, Mario and Donna, and their baby Gino who have little in terms of wealth but still give the lost boy a home. Rebel Mario fought in the Spanish Civil War and is eager to stop fascism growing, even though his beliefs are increasingly dangerous.
Despite their different lives, Clara and Pippo still yearn for their mother and each other, but is this fractured family destined to never see each other again?
Those ultimately life-changing, directional choices made by Clara and Pippo as they leave their city apartment block on that fateful morning become a metaphor for Italy’s political right and left as Clara finds a home with a middle class family reliant on the benefits of fascism, and Pippo becomes part of a working class Communist family unit.
Both the children are well cared for by two warm and compassionate women but the conflict casts a long, dark shadow over their everyday lives, and each of them never stops searching for the family they loved and lost.
As the war years pass, division and persecution become more entrenched in society and as loss, hatred and tragedy stalk the land, the chances of Clara and Pippo finding each other again become increasingly small.
Using chapters that alternate between the worlds of the separated siblings, and their experiences in two opposing political camps, Rosie explores the close bonds of family and emotive issues of heritage, race and prejudice with both insight and humanity.
Hard-hitting, sometimes painful in its raw honesty, but full of tenderness and understanding, Pippo and Clara is a heartbreaking, revealing and ultimately life-affirming story.
(Pan, paperback, £8.99)