Barbara Josselsohn’s latest novel Secrets of the Italian Island is an immersive and historically rich novel that transports the reader into a fanciful world of the Castle of Poets on the Isola di Parissi, Italy. The castle is shadowed by the looming threat of the Nazi invasion in 1943 and home to artists and great thinkers. The death of Mia’s Grandmother Lucy (aka Annalisa) reveals a secret past that links Mia to this tragic and hopeful place. The dual narrative that parallels Mia in 2018, walking in the footsteps of Annalisa in 1943, unravels a story of love, hope, secrets and tragedy. Through discovering the hidden life of her Grandmother, Mia transforms into a complex and dynamic individual with a desire for answers. The mystery of how Annalisa became the owner of an elaborate and decorated wedding dress and innovative medical device the Schianto, is the driving force behind Mia’s decision to travel to Italy and discover her Grandmother’s tragic and elusive past, while proving her right in owning the Schianto. Mia becomes determined to continue Annalisa’s legacy through pursuing her passion for science, discovering her connection to Italy and her heritage of “multiple traditions”.
Josselsohn artfully crafts characters with complex thoughts, feelings and backgrounds that unravel a deeper and darker side to their place within the novel. Annalisa’s love for Aldo, a castle resident, is mirrored in Mia’s romantic feelings for Leo, an academic researching the castle. However, Mia pursues love without fear unlike Annalisa’s tragic love story. Mia confronts Annalisa’s past to understand how historically significant the castle is in remembering Annalisa and those who were murdered and displaced. Josselsohn explores the theme of guilt and displacement after the invasion that paralysed Annalisa and dictated how she lived the rest of her life in a form of self-punishment through an unhappy marriage. Annalisa intends for Mia to discover the Schianto after her death to reveal this past and find closure on her behalf. The detailed description and setting creates a vivid and vibrant life at the castle that emphasises the tragedy caused by the Nazi invasion. The guests who were great thinkers, painters and inventors were murdered during the invasion. This provides a distinct and emotional reminder of the atrocities of war. The castle acts as a backdrop for Mia’s self-discovery and a space to understand the reasons why her Grandmother behaved the way she did and ignored her Italian heritage. All these actions are emotional scars of war.
The plot is fast-paced and full of mystery where the reader is left with a mixture of answers and even more questions by the denouement. Josselsohn creates a narrative of hope, loss and family that explores aspects of the Second World War in a different way. This is through Mia’s determination to understand the past and follow her ancestor’s footsteps and discover where their journey took them, irrespective of the emotional pain. The novel is not just about self-discovery, but also persevering hope in spite of grief or turmoil.