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Book Review | Angels of Mud by Vanessa Nicolson

We’re delighted to be sharing Elena’s thoughts about Angels of Mud by Vanessa Nicolson.

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book cover for Angels of Mud by Vanessa Nicolson.  Cover shows a scene in WWII with a woman in uniform standing among debris
  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Harbour Books (East) Ltd (26 Aug. 2021)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1905128347
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1905128341

It is the summer of 1966 and eighteen-year-old Cara accepts a job in Florence to get away from a difficult situation at home. By the autumn she has settled into her new life in the university quarter and her future looks bright. But during a significant night for her and her Italian lover, the river Arno bursts its banks, creating devastation and despair. Cara’s mother Mary, left behind in Clerkenwell, can only watch and worry from afar.

Drawing on an intimate knowledge of the city she grew up in, Vanessa Nicolson has crafted a captivating story of women’s lives across three generations, tracing how the truths withheld in families can ripple through time, as a mother and daughter, twenty years apart, come unwittingly close to replicating each other’s destiny. And what happens when, fifty years later, Cara’s own daughter, Laura, starts unpicking the threads in a web of lies.

Told with an acute sense of place and much historical detail, the story pivots around the catastrophic flood which attracted many hundreds of international volunteers – dubbed ‘Mud Angels’ by local journalists. They became symbols of humanity’s determination to help those afflicted by disaster and to value the reparative power of art.

This tale, with its twists of thwarted love and concealed sexuality, offers fresh insight into the daily lives of Fiorentini at a key time in the history of the city, while also providing, by contrast, a vivid picture of women’s lives among the Italian community in London’s grimy, post-war Clerkenwell.

Book Review

Angels of Mud is the story of two women, Mary, and her daughter Cara.

Living in post-war Clerkenwell, an area of London with a large Italian community, Mary is trapped in a marriage she isn’t happy in with a man she’s not in love with. Falling for her Italian neighbour’s son, Pippo, she begins an affair as a means of escape from her monotonous and uninspiring life.

Cara’s story is told twenty years later and she has decided to move to Florence for a few months, to work and learn the language.

She’s heartbroken after rejection and escaping to Florence seems to be the best way to heal her heart.

While in Italy she meets Gianni who goes some way to making her forget, if only for a little while. However, one morning Cara and Gianni are woken by a calamity outside her house.

The banks of the river Arno have burst and Florence is drowning. There have been fatalities and homes destroyed with precious artefacts floating away on the slimy, fetid water.

Cara decides to help and become an ‘Angel of Mud’. Anything to preserve the city’s important artifacts.

As we begin to get to know Mary and Cara a little more, we see them both hugely tested by the challenges surrounding them.

Can Mary find happiness with Pippo or is her affair destined for disaster and can Cara make a difference she’s proud of and get Tony out of her system for good?

Angels of Mud is an absolute triumph. Both in the wonderful way it is written and the storyline and authenticity of the characters and settings.

I was completely dumbfounded by the enormity of the disaster experiences by the Florentines and hadn’t heard of the events in 1966 in Italy so I felt I learned a lot. 

The Italian connection really resonated with me as I’m half Italian so I recognise a lot of the references and understood the language.

The author has done her research tremendously and has written a highly enjoyable, intriguing and educational book.

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Vanessa Nicolson has published two acclaimed memoirs, Have You Been Good? (Granta 2015) and The Truth Game (Quartet 2017). Angels of Mud is her first novel. She grew up in Florence and London, the daughter of an Italian mother and BriGsh father, and has worked as an art historian, curator and journalist. She lives in Sissinghurst, Kent.

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