The Secret Messenger

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Venice, 1943. Stella Jilani is a member of the Venetian Resistance, helping to type up an underground newspaper by night. By day, she works under Klaus Breughel as a translator, keeping up the image of a collaborator. It’s a delicate line to walk, and any wrong step could mean arrest, torture, and death. Her fear won’t stop her, though. She has a necessary job, funneling information to the Resistance, and the promise of a free Italy is enough to make her risk anything.

In a parallel storyline, Luisa Belmont finds an old typewriter in her attic. As she lives in Bristol in the twenty-first century, a typewriter is more a fun curiosity than a necessary tool for a writer. However, she also finds photographs of her grandmother from decades before, along with a mysterious man known only as C. With her mother recently dead, this is her only chance to learn more about her grandmother’s mysterious past. As soon as she has her mother’s affairs dealt with, she travels to Venice, searching for any clues to find out who her grandmother was and what secrets she kept.

While I was touched by Luisa’s determination, I found Stella’s part of the narrative far more compelling. Her stakes were much higher, involving not only her own life and death but that of her family and friends. The setting didn’t play as strongly into Luisa’s chapters, but it was a rich world in Stella’s. I could visualize it, but Mandy Robotham did so much more than just present sensory details. I could feel its spirit as well, constrained by the Nazi regime but nevertheless determined to break those bonds. Great and small actions alike felt powerful, each one a cry of defiance. I was enthralled by Stella’s courage, but also by her humanity. She isn’t a symbol or a larger than life figure. She’s a woman, doing what she can for the home she loves, even if sometimes that’s nothing more than writing a subversive story.

In the author’s note, Ms. Robotham mentions that the Venetian part of World War II is often considered a soft war. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is every war hard for those who must live through it, but the people of Venice fought and suffered against the Nazi regime as bravely as anyone could ask. The Secret Messenger brings light not only to a part of the war often overlooked but also to the role women played in subversion and resistance.

On the whole, I enjoyed this book a great deal. There were times when I wished the narration was a little more subtle because some of Stella’s thoughts were stated outright even though they seemed clear from the text. Conversely, I would love to have seen more of Luisa’s thoughts; some of her conclusions, especially early in her search, seem more like lucky intuitive leaps than anything backed by evidence. Even so, this was a worthwhile read, and one I would recommend to any fan of fiction set in this era.

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Star Count 4/5
Format Trade
Page Count 400 pages
Publisher Avon
Publish Date 2020-06-23
ISBN 9780008384623 Buy this Book
Issue July 2020
Category Historical Fiction


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