Today I’m delighted to be sharing an excerpt from Siobhan Daiko’s newly released novel The Girl from Bologna as part of a blog tour hosted by The Coffee Pot Book Club. The Girl from Bologna is part of Siobhan’s series Girls from the Italian Resistance.
I went to visit Rebecca the afternoon after my parents left. I remember climbing the stairs to the piano nobile and following her into the Matatias’ living room. It was such a beautiful place. Intricate glass and ironwork chandeliers hung from the centre of the coffered ceiling. Thick carpets the colour of whipped cream stretched over darkly lustrous parquet. I loved the nineteenth-century paintings—landscapes and portraits—covering the walls, and the fact that there were books, most of them rebound, in rows behind the glass doors of huge, dark mahogany bookcases. Despite it being spring already, mammoth radiators released heat on a scale which at home Papà would have declared plain crazy—a heat redolent of a luxury hotel rather than a private dwelling, and of such intensity that, almost immediately, breaking out in a sweat, I’d had to take off my cardigan.
Giulia served us with tea on a silver tray, and we sat on leather chairs, eating homemade cupcakes while we chatted about the essay which we were due to hand in the following week. ‘Let’s go up to my room and listen to records,’ Rebecca suggested after we’d eaten our fill.
A radiogram held pride of place by her bedroom door—a Philips as chance would have it, like the cassette recorder I’m using now. Rebecca had eclectic tastes and her collection consisted of a bit of everything: Monteverdi, Scarlatti, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. But it was her jazz records which thrilled me most. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman. I didn’t have any records of my own in those days, and relished listening to hers.
We tapped our feet to Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing). I didn’t speak any English—I still don’t—but not even the happy-go-lucky sentiment conveyed by the music could dispel the disquiet preying on my mind, a sense of impending doom. Ever since the Germans had occupied Bologna, they’d been rounding up Jews. I’d mentioned my fear for her family to Rebecca before, but she’d assured me that her father had covered all traces of their origins.
I fixed her with a concerned look as the song came to an end. ‘Did you hear that the Germans have been arresting Jews?’ I reached across the space between us and held Rebecca’s hand in mine. ‘Shouldn’t you and your parents go into hiding?’
She scoffed and squeezed my fingers. ‘We’re Bolognese. We haven’t done anything wrong. Father’s factory is manufacturing car parts. It’s important work and, much as he hates it, the Nazis buy them from him and send them to Germany. We’ll be fine, Leila. No need to be concerned.’
I took Rebecca at her word. What else could I do? We decided she should come to my place the next day, Sunday, so we could go for an afternoon hike along the porticoes leading to the Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca on a hill overlooking the city. It was our favourite passeggiata and we loved to walk under the winding vault arcades, over six hundred of them, almost four kilometres leading from the Saragozza gate at the edge of the old part of the city.
Rebecca saw me to the door and kissed me on both cheeks. ‘See you tomorrow.’ She paused and added with a blush. ‘I hope to see Dani too.’
‘You might well do so,’ I laughed. ‘I’ll ask him to come along with us.’
The next day, after lunch, I waited for her. The second hand on my watch ticked on into minutes, and the minutes ticked into an hour. I knew something was terribly wrong. Daniele offered to go and see what had happened. I insisted on going with him, a sick feeling in my stomach.
‘All will be well, don’t worry.’ My brother’s words were optimistic but I could see he was concerned. He ran a shaky hand through his thick, dark brown, wavy hair.
It only took us five minutes to get there, we ran so fast. We rang the bell and Giulia answered straight away. ‘They’ve been taken,’ she said, tears rolling down her face. ‘The SS came at dawn. Oh Dio,’ she sobbed, twisting her hands in her apron. ‘And now the Germans will move in here. I’ve been given a choice. To serve them or leave.’ She lifted her chin. ‘I will stay and look after things for my signoriuntil the Allies get here and liberate us from those Nazi swine.’
Cavolo, I’m crying. I will have to stop recording now. Sorry, but I can’t go on…
I press the off switch and put down the microphone. Romeo, my big ginger cat, jumps up onto my lap. I stroke him and the action soothes me. My heartrate slows, my sobbing ceases and my breathing steadies. Romeo meows hungrily. ‘You’re a fickle lover,’ I tell him with a sad smile. ‘You only give me affection when you want to be fed.’
I go through to the kitchen and top up his bowl with kibble. On the table is Rhiannon’s application form. I glance at the girl’s photo. She’s a redhead sporting a hairstyle like Lady Di’s. Wide blue eyes. Very Celtic looking. Rhiannon wrote me a letter introducing herself, which I received last week. I’m looking forward to meeting her and, holding onto that realisation, I go to get ready for bed.
Bologna, Italy, 1944, and the streets are crawling with German soldiers. Nineteen-year-old Leila Venturi is shocked into joining the Resistance after her beloved best friend Rebecca, the daughter of a prominent Jewish businessman, is ruthlessly deported to a concentration camp.
In February 1981, exchange student Rhiannon Hughes arrives in Bologna to study at the university. There, she rents a room from Leila, who is now middle-aged and infirm. Leila’s nephew, Gianluca, offers to show Rhiannon around but Leila warns her off him.
Soon Rhiannon finds herself being drawn into a web of intrigue. What is Gianluca’s interest in a far-right group? And how is the nefarious head of this group connected to Leila? As dark secrets emerge from the past, Rhiannon is faced with a terrible choice. Will she take her courage into both hands and risk everything?
An evocative, compelling read, “The Girl from Bologna” is a story of love lost, daring exploits, and heart wrenching redemption.
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 a rescued cat. After a life of romance and adventure in Hong Kong, Australia and the UK, Siobhan now spends her time indulging her love of writing and enjoying her life near Venice.
Book Title: The Girl from Bologna
Series: Girls from the Italian Resistance
Author: Siobhan Daiko
Publication Date: 29th June 2022
Publisher: Asolando Books
Page Length: 300 Pages
Genre: 20th Century Historical Fiction