Author: Mark T. Sullivan
Genres: Historical Fiction
Read: July 2017 on audiobook
Ugh, this book.
This is a challenge to rate because it really is a fascinating story that deserves to be told, but oh my god, the writing was brutal. I really wish this story could have been told by someone like Markus Zusak, Anthony Doerr, Kristen Hannah, or literally anyone who knows how to better write emotions and dialogue.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is the fictional telling of Pino Lella’s true story. Lella is an 17 year old Italian from Milan who comes of age at the height of World War II. His parents send him out of Milan and he ends up guiding jews and other people looking to escape Italy through the snowy alps to neutral Switzerland. He does this until just before his 18th birthday, when his parents call him back to Milan and force him to enlist with the Germans to avoid being drafted to what would likely be sure death with the Italian Army. This is a huge source of shame for Pino and when he finds himself assigned to be the driver for German General Hans Leyers, he seizes the chance to redeem himself by turning spy for the Allies. Oh, and along the way he falls in love with this girl Ana.
This was an incredible true story, but the writing failed on so many levels for me. Disclaimer, this was my first audiobook, so it’s possible that maybe audiobooks are just not the right format for me, but I really think it’s the writing. First of all, the dialogue was awful – it didn’t feel at all natural. Secondly, it was not dynamic. I know this book is based on a true story, but it’s still supposed to be fiction. As an author you can take some liberties on a true story, to infuse emotion into the story and make it more palatable to your readers. Historical fiction writers do this all the time.
I think Sullivan should have just written a biography because this novel was way too precise. I felt like I was reading a boring chronology of Pino’s life. “Pino did this, and then he went here, and then he saw this, etc…” It was way too long and Sullivan tried to make every single event seem so intense, he spent so much time detailing each alpine crossing and everywhere Pino went as a driver. It was weird how precise he was with everything, even down to the specific distances Pino hiked and specific time he did something. I didn’t need to know how many metres Pino traversed for every part of his mountain crossings and I didn’t need to know where exactly he took General Leyers at 2, 4, and 6pm.
Sullivan conducted extensive interviews with Pino Lella and I felt like he didn’t give enough voice to the character and tried to stay too close to Lella’s story. Pino’s narrative felt like that of an 80 year old man recounting what happened to him during the war rather than that of a 17 year old actually living these experiences. This experience happened to Pino 70 years ago and I’m sure it was hard for him to articulate his emotions about it, which is where I had the biggest issue with Sullivan’s writing.
Sullivan didn’t know how to emote. Pino felt like the most basic character ever. He’s constantly talking about how he “feels”, but it had no depth for me. I think Sullivan should have taken a bit more liberty with the story to better connect with or imagine what Pino really would have felt. This book was an example of telling your audience instead of showing them. Sullivan obviously admires Pino (as do I), but it got in the way of his writing because Pino didn’t really have many flaws. I feel like Sullivan didn’t imagine what it would really have been like for Pino to enlist with the Nazis and the struggle he would have faced being shunned by his brother and best friend. Sure he was “sad” or “angry”, but his emotions were so basic and lacked depth.
This went for all the characters. Most upsetting for me was Ana. She had no personality whatsoever and her relationship with Pino was so romanticized. I mean, Pino was 18 at the time, so I could believe his fawning over her, but ugh, there were way too many descriptions of Pino being intoxicated by her “female scent”. Bletch. Seriously, what did Pino like about her besides her beauty? We never learn anything of substance about her except a quick flashback to her father’s tragic death.
But enough about the writing, on to the story: it was so heartbreaking! Pino was a busy teenager during the war and made a truly incredible contribution to the war. The synopsis gives no indication about the time Pino spent in the alps guiding refugees across the border, which I found even more fascinating than his spy work under General Leyers. It’s wild how many historical events he bore witness to and I really liked learning about Italy’s occupation. I’ve read a lot of WWII fiction about the camps and what it was like during the war in England, France, Germany, Poland, Russia, and even Hungary, but I’ve never read any WWII fiction about Italy.
The ending and epilogue were some of the most meaningful parts of the book for me. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but there was one death (it’s war, there’s obviously going to be deaths) at the end of the story that was actually one of the most horrifying things I could ever imagine and I was extremely disturbed reading it. Honestly, everything about the end of the war in Italy was disturbing: the civil war in Milan, the revenge killings, the desecration of Mussolini’s body in the square. Death is so unpredictable and it was one thing that Sullivan did a good job of demonstrating towards the end of the book.
Sullivan’s depiction of the aftermath of the war in Italy was also meaningful because it really showcased the hardships the people of Milan had experienced and their anger at the Nazis and the fascists. It’s a frightening look at the depravity of humans and how even after suffering so much, we can still want to see others suffer. Can revenge actually soothe your soul after bearing witness to so much pain? Pino was so detached emotionally at the end of the novel that I thought this was the one scene where Sullivan actually showed us his pain instead of just telling us about it. Pino was numb inside, so Sullivan stopped narrating his internal emotions and we were able to discern them from his actions rather than being told how he felt.
After finishing this book, I’m not surprised that Pino kept his experiences to himself. I don’t think him a coward, but I understand now why he thought himself one. He was shamed and shunned by a lot of people when he joined the Nazis and when he becomes a spy, he’s frustrated by not being able to share it with his family or Carletto and hates for them to think of him as a traitor Nazi. But to an extent, he was. He did join the Nazi party and it was only by fate that he ended up as a driver to Hans Leyers. I’m glad he was able to rebel under the Nazi regime and secretly fight against the Nazis, but the story could easily have gone another way if he had had no opportunity to fight for the Allies and ultimately, the winners.
But in a time of war we can’t know how things will turn out. Pino was young and not equipped for the situations he was put in. It’s impossible to predict how we will act and react in extreme situations and how the bounds of right and wrong can become blurred and confused by the people and events around you. I can see how Pino would be haunted by his experiences for the rest of his life and how war can really change the trajectory of your entire life and character.
I am very glad that Mark Sullivan has created a record of Pino’s life so that history will remember him, but don’t expect a well-written book.