The title of Foulds’ latest (The Quickening Maze, 2010, etc.) refers to an Italian good-luck saying tinged with fear, a fitting reference to the interconnected fates of three World War II soldiers—one British and two Italian-American—after the liberation of Sicily.
British enlistee Will, the university-educated son of a schoolmaster in a rural English village, is disappointed to be assigned, not to the battlefield, but to Field Security Services. Doing mop-up work, first in North Africa and then Sicily, he proves better qualified than the officers above him, but his suggestions are generally, sometimes disastrously, ignored. Ray, a sensitive working-class kid from New York with dreams of writing screenplays, experiences the surrealist horror of battle in North Africa, where most of his company is killed. Because he speaks some Italian, he's then sent to Sicily, where he watches a new friend get blown to pieces after stepping on a land mine. Shellshocked, Ray wanders into the palace of the prince of Sant’Attilio, where the prince’s lonely daughter, Luisa, hides him as she nurses him back to health. Also stationed in Sant’Attilio is Albanese, a petty New York mobster the Americans enlisted for his Italian and general knowledge of Sicily, where he was born. The English are clueless in sorting out the sociology of the Sicilian town, but Will’s instinctive qualms about Albanese, whom he meets briefly on several occasions, are all too correct. When Albanese escaped Sant’Attilio in a casket almost 20 years earlier, he left behind a young wife and a profitable position working as the prince’s representative (while cheating him on the side). In Albanese’s absence, his wife remarried, and the prince gave his job and his house to one of his former shepherds. Now Albanese will go to any length to get back his wife and his home.
Foulds writes like no one else; while individual scenes are rendered with poetic simplicity, they fit together into an elliptical, complex plot readers will puzzle over long after finishing this novel.