The Sparrow is one of the SF novels that renewed my enthusiasm for the genre: its sequel, Children of God, didn't move me as much, but was just as clearly the work of a writer with a gift for characterisation, telling details and dramatic pacing. For a long time I was wary of reading A Thread of Grace, in case it disappointed me. It's a very different book, after all: set in the past rather than the future, our world rather than an alien planet ...
It didn't disappoint.
A Thread of Grace tells the entwined stories of the people of a small (imaginary) town in North Italy during WWII. Some are Jews, trying to escape occupying German forces: some are Catholics: some are Germans. Some are collaborators, some are partisans. What they all are, each in a different way, is human, three-dimensional: real people with flaws, delusions, petty animosities. (Angelo thinks he's been sent away from his parents because he was too noisy and made his baby sister cry: doesn't realise that if he doesn't go into hiding he's doomed by his faith.)
The most fascinating of the protagonists was, for me, Renzo Leoni, a Jewish veteran of Italy's colonial war in Abyssinia, where he flew bombing missions and let passion overtake reason. Everything he does can be read as a kind of atonement: but (like Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow) he does it all with grace and ease and humour.
The novel doesn't flinch from atrocity, but neither does it dwell upon the horrors of war. Deaths are, as often as not, mentioned in passing: they happen off-stage. And Russell is not afraid to confront death in all its randomness. In an afterword, she explains her method:
So many survivors tell us it was blind dumb luck, not courage or decision, that got them through the war. I wanted that element of chance in the story, so I made a list of the characters, and my son flipped a coin. Heads, the character lived. Tails, the character died. How and why and when -- that was up to me as the storyteller.
An unusual technique, but a very effective one, because quite early on it becomes clear that none of the characters are safe. I mean, obviously they're not safe: they're in the middle of a war. But they're not safe from their author: a pivotal character on one page might well die on the next.
There's just enough of the other side's perspective -- a German doctor who's deserted, a commandant who's trying to govern fairly -- to provide a context that's probably more familiar to many readers than the struggles of Italian partisans during Occupation. (It's novels like this, and Captain Corelli's Mandolin -- to which I'm surprised it's not more generally compared, though the cast is much larger and the focus different: there's a shared humanism -- that make me realise how patchy my own knowledge of WWII, beyond Great Britain, is.)
Which all sounds terribly grim and earnest: but there's humour aplenty, of the triumph-in-adversity sort as well as the quiet sly humour of the oppressed, throughout the book. And some very nice touches:
Opera, too, has been dragooned. On Radio Berlin, Siegfried sings of reforging his father's broken sword: a German counteroffensive is cleared to begin twelve hours later. Tonio declares his love for the Daughter of the Regiment on Radio London: some partisan band can expect an airdrop this time tomorrow night.
A really gripping and highly recommended read, with characters who've stuck in my mind several weeks after I finished reading the novel.