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Collateral damage

Liberation A Novel Joanna Scott Little, Brown: 264 pp., $23.95

November 27, 2005|Susan Straight | Susan Straight is the author of "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots" and "Highwire Moon." Her new novel, "A Million Nightingales," will be published in March.

JOANNA SCOTT'S eighth work of fiction, "Liberation," is a prismatic and quietly powerful look at war, not in the traditional sense of detailing battle scenes and the horrors, but at the glancing yet devastating blows dealt to ordinary people on a small island during World War II.

Some of our best literature about war focuses on those left behind or on the periphery of battle. Elizabeth Bowen's "The Last September" and Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy are remarkable explorations of war's destructive consequences on men and women merely living during wartime. To that company add "Liberation."

Scott's novel is set in 1944 on the Italian island of Elba during the German occupation, as endless waves of troops move from coast to island to mainland and the war shifts and reinvents itself under different leaders and demagogues.

There are no heroes. There is Adriana Nardi, who at the novel's opening is hiding in a kitchen cabinet as the liberation of her island begins, with Allied soldiers rampaging through the farmlands, bringing freedom. Adriana's family is afraid for the 10-year-old girl. Adriana knows: "Deep inside her growing body, inside the cabinet, inside the kitchen, inside the walls ... she let herself consider what could happen. She could guess that it had to do with the advantages of strength over the stupidity of innocence."

Among the soldiers is Amdu Diop, a 17-year-old from Senegal, innocence personified, the least likely to be dangerous to Adriana. "He was known for being useless -- he'd killed no one in the battles on Corsica and had managed to lose his regiment more than once, returning only after the fighting was over," Amdu says about himself. "Each time he'd been forgiven, not only because he was by far the youngest soldier in the Ninth French Colonial Division, the unofficial mascot who was thought to bring good luck, but because he was the grandson of the great General Jean-Baptiste Diop and was forgiven for anything."

On the night of liberation, some soldiers rape and kill a teenage girl near the port city closest to the farm compound of La Chiatta, the Nardi ancestral home. Amdu chances on the scene after the rape; he flees when he realizes they will silence him if he tries to tell; as he runs, he is shot at by snipers in the hills. Wounded, he hides in a ravine, where he is found by Adriana. She brings him home, and Amdu is nursed back to health by her family.

The spoils of war, its wantonness and randomness, become vivid here. A pig is slaughtered, a girl is killed, triggering events on the island that will alter everything. Scott wants us to feel the collateral damage, not the effects of today's smart bombs or suicide bombers, but the damage done in every way, every day, through folly, indecision and unnecessary displays of strength.

In her novels, Scott often uses multiple points of view; in "Liberation," she pulls off kaleidoscopic shifts of observation with a depth of vision possessed by great writers. The novel's three main threads are Adriana's childhood on Elba, her adult reflections decades later as she rides a commuter train in America, and Amdu's experience on the island off Tuscany. But part of the story also is told by Adriana's mother, Signora Giulia Nardi; by Adriana's uncle; and by an omniscient narrator on that train ride from New Jersey to New York City.

Scott weaves these layers of voice and landscape, the acts of kindness and savagery, taking the reader on a journey along edges of war and death.

Signora Nardi tells an army officer searching for Amdu: "I don't pretend to understand these wars, Monsieur Lieutenant. Or even how the island of Elba figures in the scheme. Why does anyone bother with this little bauble? It's said that Elba was formed with the rest of the surrounding archipelago when Venus' necklace broke and the jewels scattered in the sea. Will the victors gather up the jewels and string them together again?"

Amdu and Adriana do not fall in love; they are in love with their visions of the world from this island. The adults around them see danger and retribution. Amdu has the idea that he will find Adriana when she is a woman, after he has studied medicine in Senegal and returned to Elba to make it his home. But when he is well, he plays a mock battle in a field with local boys, including Adriana's cousin, whose weapons -- stones and ignorance and venom -- send him fleeing again; this time, he meets up with island men. Because a pig was slaughtered and a girl killed, because troops are still moving on the island and because Amdu's skin is African dark, the implacable Elbans invoke justice. But their justice is merciless and misguided.

Years later, hurtling through a train tunnel as dark as the kitchen cabinet of her youth, Adriana is now Mrs. Rundel, and her life depends on anonymous strangers who are at war with their daily lives and their responsibilities.

Scott wrote of Elba and Adriana Nardi before, in her 2002 novel, "Tourmaline," about an American's search for gems that endangers the girl. "Liberation" is about the forces of war on the same island, in the dappled light of vineyards and the brilliant flash of bombs. Scott is in full control of folly and tragedy in a world she has painstakingly researched and brilliantly imagined. *

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