|Patricia Hall: The Italian Girl|
Martin's Minotaur (Hardcover) ISBN 0-312-26489-5
Coincidence leads workers to unmarked grave at a construction site. As the earthmover lifts its bite of earth, a skull rolls free. Police gather the bones and pathologist Amos Atherton fits them together into a human jigsaw puzzle. Amos pieces together a teenage girl. As Thackery informs his boss about the unusual situation, his boss just happens to remember clearly the unsolved disappearance of an Italian girl, Mariella Bonnetti, on Coronation Day in 1953.
More amazing still, Thackery's significant other and flatmate, Laura Ackroyd, a newspaper reporter, discovers that her 80-year-old grandmother knew the Italian girl and her family. Grandmother vividly remembers the adults and children on Peter Street where they all lived in 1953, in Bradfield, near Yorkshire, England. Laura's father and Mariella played together. Then Grandmother Ackroyd, recuperating in a nursing home run by a Nurse Ratchet type, recognizes a fellow patient as a former Peter Street neighbor.
While Thackery digs for clues, Laura pursues a story concerning the comeback of has-been actor John Blake. Blake returns to his Yorkshire roots to promote a project he believes will resurrect his career. When he sees lovely Laura, the old man's fancy turns to lust. Thackery's thoughts turn to jealousy. Struggling to keep his own secrets buried, Thackery helplessly watches another man move in on the woman he loves.
Hall's novel deals with unearthed secrets, the difficulties they bring to present and how they alter the future. She augments those secrets with British prejudices against Italian immigrants in the Fifties, building a strong foundation for her story. The action rolls smoothly from one surprising revelation to the next.
But too much serendipity spoils a good plot. Hall relies too heavily on coincidence to keep the story moving toward its climax. One, maybe two such happenstances readers can believe. More than that, and we begin to grow cynical and wish the author worked harder to give us a more believable connection to reality.
Hall's characters, unlike Pinocchio, remain wooden. Thackery maintains an elusive and mysterious distance. Laura fights for independence, while the grandmother and company come off the most human of the lot. Yet The Italian Girl provides a first rate puzzle, destined to keep you guessing until the very end.
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