Deluged in Florence: Rosemary Goring reviews Angels of Mud by Vanessa Nicolson

Harbour, £12

Review by Rosemary Goring

In a café in Florence, hung with photos of cars floating upside down through the streets, I overheard an American ask the waiter: “Does this happen every year?”

If it did, the city would have disappeared long ago. The great flood of 1966 has become legend, by far the worst inundation Florence has endured in centuries. On November 4, the Arno broke its banks and rushed through the streets. Two-thirds of the city was submerged. More than 100 people drowned, and thousands of priceless artworks and books were ruined. People from across the world rushed to help, earning themselves the title Angeli del Fango, or Angels of Mud, the title of art historian and memoirist Vanessa Nicolson’s debut novel.

Few subjects lend themselves better to fiction, and the flood forms the climax of Nicolson’s tale. Raised between Florence and London, she draws on her background to create a story that ricochets between both. In so doing, she paints a portrait of very different cultures and societies in this period. London, believe it or not, comes off better.

The novel’s central character, Cara, is caught up in the drama of the flood. An 18-year-old from Clerkenwell, she has taken a temporary job in the city, in the hope of forgetting an unrequited schoolgirl passion. Her Italian name, meaning blessed, goes to the heart of the story, which lies in her mother’s unhappy marriage. After her birth, writes Nicolson, Mary “peered into her daughter’s crumpled face like an archaeologist studying a find”. Eventually what binds her mother Mary, and Cara too, to this country is explained.

Angels of Mud focuses mainly on Mary and Cara, but Nicolson also encompasses their forebears and descendants. There’s enough material here for several novels, as it stretches back into the early 20th century’s London-Irish immigrants, their Italian counterparts in Little Italy, and into our own times. In many ways it is a traditional family saga, layering each generation’s experiences beneath the next. Above all, it is about a mother’s hope that her daughter will have a better life, with more opportunities and romance, than she has had.

Marrying young to a man whose family had died in the blitz, Mary yearned for more. On her wedding day she thinks: “It was just the beginning, but it felt like the end.” She dreads the same fate afflicting her daughter, and encourages her to go to Florence and discover a wider world. What happens there is an eye-opener for the naïve Cara. It is a magnificent city, but for a woman who wants a taste of independence, it can be hypocritical and suffocating.

The bones of this story are good, the writing less so. Many novelists have written about Florence, from EM Forster to Dan Brown. Nicolson has now joined their ranks, although closer to Brown than Forster. Describing dreary post-war London or luminous Florence, she is at her most assured. The Duomo was “like a large terracotta umbrella … It gave a focus, like the point of a painting from which the eye can move around but to which it constantly returns …”

The characters who fill the story are vividly drawn, yet they feel like ciphers. It is as if the novel is an eightsome reel between recognisable types. There is Mary’s husband, the lame bookseller, unable to satisfy his wife; the handsome schoolfriend uninterested in girls; the kindly Italian neighbour who cooks delicious lasagne even during rationing; the chic but stand-offish Florentine employer, quicker to criticise than to praise.

These flaws alone would not ruin the book, but Nicolson lacks the skill to handle the welter of material she imposes on herself. The prose is dull, at times leaden, and the dialogue painfully flat and functional. All the elements are here for a rip-roaring tale, but the author has neither the imagination nor the literary style to bring it off. Even the great flood, one of the most momentous events in Florence’s history, loses its power in a cliché-ridden plot. Like the rest of Nicolson’s cast, its purpose is to convey a message, and a very hackneyed one at that.

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992