Today I’m delighted to be sharing an excerpt from Siobhan Daiko’s newly released novel The Girl from Portofino as part of a blog tour hosted by The Coffee Pot Book Club. The Girl from Portofino is part of Girls of the Italian Resistance: A collection of standalone novels set in Italy during World War 2.
Gina’s legs were burning as she carried her heavy rucksack up the steep mule path. It was a humid night, the moon barely showing through thick cloud cover. Perfect conditions for a battalion of thirty partisans on the move.
She placed one foot in front the other, the scent of the chestnut tree trunks mingling with the odour of male sweat in her nostrils, her eyes fixed on the ground. Counting her footsteps helped her keep going and stopped her from worrying about what tomorrow might bring.
She, Stefano, Commander Vento, and the others were heading towards Monte Becco, eight hundred metres high in the Ligurian Apennines, overlooking the coast like a crown of thorns.
Gina was strong and used to walking; she was thin, muscular, and had a swimmer’s lungs. She’d proved herself to their leader by not complaining about anything. She shouldered her responsibilities like one of the men—just like she shouldered her mitra, her MP 40 German submachine gun. Most of the group’s weapons had been stolen in a raid on the Fascist garrison in Chiavari on the Tigullio Gulf last March. Commander Vento, black tufts of beard round his tense jaw, had trained Gina and Stefano to fire their guns shortly after they’d arrived. It was a source of pride to Gina that she’d immediately mastered the skill of firing hers and had even shot at hostile Germans while on patrol.
Pebbles scattered beneath the soles of her boots and spiny acacia bushes scratched the skin of her calves under her baggy trousers. Her legs were long and kept pace with the men’s. She wouldn’t allow tiredness to slow her down but carried on climbing, one foot in front of the other, not thinking about the future. It would be what it would be. The past, however, was a different matter. She suppressed a shudder, unable to stop herself from remembering.
From the time when she and Stefano had joined Commander Vento’s battalion in April, they’d been moving about the region, changing location frequently, to avoid discovery by the Nazis and any Fascist spies. Their movements had enabled them to familiarise themselves with the terrain and to develop friendships with the villagers, who gave them food and whom Gina and the partisans repaid by helping on their farms.
Last week they were in the Cichero Valley, staying in a barn, cutting firewood and grass to earn their keep, when news arrived of an imminent German attack. They escaped to the summit of Monte Ramaceto and watched with sickening horror as the village below was sacked and burnt to the ground. Seven of its residents slain. All because the Nazis had learnt that partigiani were in the area.
The fact local people still supported them after the tragedy was a surprise to Gina. She’d imagined such terror would make the farmers turn against them. But no. The contadini peasants, as they were generally known, had had enough of Mussolini; he’d done nothing for them. And now his crony Hitler’s troops were occupying the country, taking precious food, even impressing the farmers into labour camps, the contadini were firmly on the side of the partisans and prepared to suffer for their allegiance.
‘Halt!’ Commander Vento’s voice came from the front of the line, and the group came to a stop. The moon had broken through the clouds. A narrow valley stretched out before them, hidden between the high ridges. Gina had heard there were small caves and grottos up here, where they’d be able to hide should there be an enemy incursion. But, for now, they were safe, and all she wanted to do was sleep.
‘Come, Elsa,’ Stefano called her by her battle name. ‘Let’s find a spot and hunker down.’ He’d grown a beard since April—all the men were bearded due to the lack of shaving facilities.
‘Va bene, Cesare,’ she grinned at him.
His chosen name of a Roman Emperor always made her giggle. Hers, on the other hand, she’d taken from her favourite film star, Elsa Merlini. It had been strange at first to be called by a new name. Commander Vento had burnt their documents after he’d agreed to them joining up. He’d said they needed to protect their families, who might otherwise suffer reprisals if ever she and Stefano were caught. Guilt had stabbed at Gina then; she hadn’t considered that her actions might have consequences for those she loved.
She took her blanket from her rucksack and draped it around her shoulders; she felt cold now she was no longer exerting herself. The rest of the squad had melted into the shadows; it was what they always did when it was time to go to sleep. Gina lowered herself onto a patch of dry grass between two boulders. Stefano lay down next to her, and she listened to his breaths slowing as he fell asleep.
She smiled to herself. Stefano hardly left her side. ‘You’re a beautiful girl,’ he’d said. ‘Let me pretend to be your sweetheart in front of the men.’ And Gina had agreed. Although the code of Vento’s partisans—which had strict guidelines on behaviour towards women—would have punished anyone who bothered her, being the only female amongst them, she preferred not to put herself in any situation where one of her comrades might be tempted to try his luck.
Occasionally, the thought came to her that perhaps Stefano still hadn’t given up hoping she would relent and become his real sweetheart. But she’d told him outright the one time he’d tried to kiss her, years ago, ‘I don’t want to spoil our friendship.’
She closed her eyes, concentrating hard on not missing Mamma, Babbo, Tommaso and Adele. It was always before dreams claimed her that she missed them the most, missed Mamma’s cuddles, Babbo taking her out on his boat so she could swim in the gulf, Tommaso’s brotherly teasing, and Adele’s intelligent comments on the soap operas they enjoyed.
Gina shifted her body on the hard ground. She was hungry, so she reached into her rucksack for a military biscuit stolen the last time they’d raided a Fascist garrison. She munched and swallowed.
But the food became an acid handful of gravel that squeezed her stomach, as the distant rumble of plane engines, followed by muffled explosions, indicated that the Allies were bombing the coastal roads and railways again. She said a silent prayer for the safety of her family and friends in Portofino. This was why she was here—to try and bring an end to this terrible war as quickly as possible. And, holding onto that thought, she finally slept.
In 1970 Gina Bianchi returns to Portofino to attend her father’s funeral, accompanied by her troubled twenty-four-year-old daughter, Hope. There, Gina is beset by vivid memories of World War 2, a time when she fought with the Italian Resistance and her twin sister, Adele, worked for the Germans.
In her childhood bedroom, Gina reads Adele’s diary, left behind during the war. As Gina learns the devastating truth about her sister, she’s compelled to face the harsh brutality of her own past. Will she finally lay her demons to rest, or will they end up destroying her and the family she loves?
A hauntingly epic read that will sweep you away to the beauty of the Italian Riviera and the rugged mountains of its hinterland. “The Girl from Portofino” is a story about heart-wrenching loss and uplifting courage, love, loyalty, and secrets untold.
Siobhan Daiko is a British historical fiction author. A lover of all things Italian, she lives in the Veneto region of northern Italy with her husband, a Havanese dog and two rescued cats. After a life of romance and adventure in Hong Kong, Australia and the UK, Siobhan now spends her time, when she isn’t writing, enjoying her life near Venice.
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Book Title: The Girl from Portofino
Series: Girls of the Italian Resistance: A collection of standalone novels set in Italy during World War 2
Author: Siobhan Daiko
Publication Date: 30th December 2021
Publisher: Asolando Books
Page Length: 300 Pages
Genre: Women’s Historical Fiction/20th Century Historical/World War 2 Historical