Sometimes a novel comes out of nowhere to delight and surprise you, not following any current trends or themes. That is the case with The Sound of the Hours, Karen Campbell’s latest. Set in Italy in 1943, just after the arrest of Mussolini, it uses an unlikely romance, set against the backdrop of World War II, to examine religion, politics, race, family, and what it means to belong. Perhaps the least surprising thing about it is that Campbell is the author as there are few writers who have the range of subjects and styles evident in their bibliography as she now does.
The Sound of the Hours is her seventh novel and, after her initial series of Glasgow-based police procedurals, she wrote This Is Where I Am, a powerful account of the relationship between a Somalian refugee and his mentor, (which was a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime). She followed that with Rise, a novel that takes some of the familiar themes and tropes of Scottish literature and art and plays with them to great effect.
The Sound of the Hours is the first time Campbell takes her readers outside of Scotland (with a couple of notable exceptions), setting the majority of the story in Barga, a Tuscan town with strong Scottish connections to this day. She has clearly got a keen sense of the place and its history – knowledge that you suspect comes not only from time spent there, but also from extensive investigation.
This allows you to immerse yourself in this world, and you feel you could find your way around the streets, and to the houses, markets, churches, and graveyards that are portrayed, with little trouble. Yet, it’s a novel that wears such research lightly, getting the balance between entertaining and informing just right. As with all of Karen Campbell’s novels her characters are the key.
We are introduced to seventeen-year-old Vittoria ‘Vita’ Guidi and her family whose split loyalties and the tensions that result mirror the Italy of the day. It is a country that became disputed territory in the last throws of the Second World War, with German occupation under threat from an encroaching United States Army. Many Italians became pawns in this dangerous game, having to react to changes in who was in charge on a regular basis. Campbell captures the pressures on civilians as war rages around them, and how that heightens day-to-day living as well as emotions. Vita and her family are caught in the middle and have to find new ways to survive.
The other strand of the novel is the story of Frank Chapel, a ‘Buffalo Soldier’, the nickname for African American U.S. Army personnel. Frank is an educated liberal, a Berkeley College straight-A student who believes he is destined for officer status but soon finds out that the army is not going to allow him to reach the higher ranks, and he becomes a victim of institutional racism for the first time in his life. Frank has to quickly adjust his view of not only what the army has to offer, but also how his life may unfold.
Campbell puts us in the boots of men fighting for a country that does not let them vote. Even after swearing an oath to lay down their lives they find themselves eating and sleeping in separate areas from other soldiers. When even the army becomes segregated then it becomes clear where cultural priorities lie. Shipped to Italy to help liberate the country from German occupation, and make sure that Mussolini and his acolytes remain out of power, Frank finds himself in a strange land where his uniform creates one response, the colour of his skin another.
When Frank and Vita meet (an unforgettable scene) it is clear that theirs is a relationship that will have to overcome huge odds, and it unfolds beautifully with Campbell eschewing the easy and obvious route of love conquering all for a more nuanced and believable story. Rather it’s the other strands of their stories that are brought to the fore as they are separated almost as soon as they meet, making not only for a more interesting read, but adding a romantic tension and suspense that it would not have otherwise. Vita’s priority is to keep herself and her family safe, while Frank must negotiate fighting battles internally and externally as he tries to make his way back to her.
As I mentioned earlier, Campbell uses this relationship to examine wider concerns. She looks at how carrying fundamental positions and prejudices, whether religious, political, or ideological, can tear families, and nations, apart, themes that have rarely been more expedient than they are today. She also considers the role of women in times of war, and how that alters family dynamics and relationships. As the boys play at soldiers the women have to not only patch them up, but also try and live as normal a life as possible all the while fearing the worst. Questions of heroism and sacrifice, and what forms they take, are never far from the surface.
If you can imagine Captain Corelli’s Mandolin meets Catch 22 you’ll have some idea as to what The Sound of the Hours is like. There is the romance of place and its people of the former, the absurdity and madness of war of the latter, and the clash of cultures of both. It’s a novel to get lost in – one that transports you to another time and place, and you cannot help but become involved and emotionally invested with the lives of those who live there. It’s also a timely reminder that any discussion about the best contemporary Scottish novelists should include Karen Campbell.