Regular readers may remember how much I loved Elizabeth Buchan’s last novel The Museum of Broken Promises, in fact it was one of my top twenty of the year. So, I was very excited to be approved to read this via NetGalley. The story is split into two timelines and follows the lives of two British women who spend some time living in Rome. Lottie Archer arrives at the Eternal City as a new wife and with a new job as an archivist at the Archivo Espatriati. Her very first task is to archive the papers and journal of a woman called Nina Lawrence who worked as a gardener in Rome in the late 1970s. This was a difficult time for the country socially and politically, known as the ‘Years of Lead’ – a period which stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s and resulted in many incidents of far right and far left terrorism. Nina’s task was to redesign gardens that still lay devastated by WW2, something she was passionate about and very talented. Within her papers, is a large leather journal, rather worse for wear and full of drawings and pressed plants. However, Lottie also finds a painting of the Annunciation – the moment where the Virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel to tell her she will be the mother of Jesus, the son of God. Lottie thinks it may be medieval, due to the colours used and the iconography. This piques her interest and she is disturbed to learn that Nina was murdered in Rome, and that very few people attended her funeral in the Protestant cemetery. Interestingly though, one mourner was a Catholic priest, which strokes Lottie as very unusual. She wants to find out more about the painting, but she also finds herself sucked into the mystery of what happened to Nina, who murdered her and why did she seem so friendless in this beautiful city?
I found the novel a little slow at first. I didn’t click with Lottie straight away, the detail and discussion of medieval art was quite dense (or I was) and the complexity of the political situation wasn’t always easy to follow. I also thought the intricacies and machinations of the Catholic Church might be a little difficult to penetrate for those who don’t know much about Catholicism – luckily I am one, with convent teaching under my belt, so this was not so difficult for me. However, I did like that the author didn’t simplify these areas of the book because in a way they added to the mystery of a city that has an incredibly complicated history. I was drawn in most by the story of Nina, just like Lottie is. I could understand why her story would get under your skin as someone interested in the past and trying to make sense of it. There is a kinship between the two women, even though they can never meet. Lottie is unsure of her position in Rome for several reasons. Firstly, when she arrives to work at the archive, her new role hasn’t quite been vacated. She moves into the apartment that her husband Tom shared with his previous partner Clare, and all around her are memories that don’t belong to her (including an ugly lamp, that should be kept because it works perfectly well, according to their formidable housekeeper). All of this is compounded by an underlying sense of abandonment, formed because she was left by her birth mother. There’s something lost about Nina that she latches onto and the more she finds out, the more she wonders whether Nina was more than a gardener?
Nina is a rather fascinating woman, who shares Lottie’s sense of rootlessness and lack of ties. There is definitely a deeply woven reason for Nina’s death, involving politics, security services, the church and a rather unwise, but beautiful love affair that unfolds in her journal. It is this aspect of her character that really humanises her for me, she becomes a real, living and breathing person and it is then even more tragic when the end comes. One thing both narratives capture beautifully is the city itself. Just like the narrative structure of the book, we get a sense of Rome as place where the past is very closely layered under the present. I thought about the tunnels and cave structures that run under the city’s streets, some still populated with WW2 vehicles, as an embodiment of this feeling. The present is full of tourists, rushing around on their itineraries getting a sense of the past and present city, but not necessarily the world underneath their feet. The author evokes the sights and smells beautifully: describing the less followed paths, the street fountains carved with dolphins and maidens, the detail of the plants so precious to Nina, the smells and sight of the deli counters full of salami, olives and beautifully ripe tomatoes. I found myself craving a trip to Italy all the time while reading!
However, she also shows its impenetrability to outsiders who know nothing of Catholicism, Roman etiquette or it’s slightly corrupt ways of getting business done. This is captured most beautifully in Lottie’s burgeoning relationship with their housekeeper. I also enjoyed her friendship with the book binder, who she asks to authenticate the painting she finds without understanding his significance. The background on medieval painting is vital here, not just to understand the symbolism within the traditional aspects, but to identify those that are far more transgressive and intensely personal. This is a complicated mystery/thriller, mixed with a travelogue of Rome and an intense love story. It asks questions about where we belong and whether our final destinations have been reached by choice, accident or a deep sense of duty to our family, our religion and our country. By the end I realised I’d become so enthralled, I was very sad to leave Rome behind.
Thank you to Atlantic Books for my digital copy via NetGalley.