By Sandra Sabatini
Key Porter, 360 pages, $28
Dante's War is what's known as literary fiction -- highbrow stuff, as opposed to "popular" fiction. But it's also a whopping good yarn.
Guelph resident Sandra Sabatini's debut novel -- her earlier works of fiction were short-story collections, The One with the News (2000) and The Dolphins at Sainte-Marie (2006) -- fairly revels in telling a story, and telling it well.
And though it adroitly mixes history and romance, none dare call it historical romance.
What it is, is a realistic portrayal of the intersection of private lives and public events.
The Dante of the book's title is Dante De Angelis. Son of an abusive minor Fascist functionary in Mussolini's pre-Second World War government in the northern Italian town of Spoleto, Dante's a good kid (aptly named, his surname translates as "Of the Angels").
Not daunted by his upbringing, he turns into a fine and resilient young man, though his childhood and adolescence render him constitutionally rebellious against arbitrary authority of any stripe.
Still, beguiled by Mussolini's imperialist visions and, just as critically, bored with small-town life, Dante and his childhood friend Sabino enlist in a military academy that grooms them to be, and graduates them as, soldiers of Il Duce's ill-fated would-be second Roman empire.
On leave in Rome on the eve of his deployment, the young soldier meets and falls in love with Angelina. She, a fellow child of rural Italy, temporarily in the big city to help out in a relative's store, reciprocates.
On a subsequent leave, he journeys to her village and meets her family.
On the basis of these two brief encounters -- and letters to and from the various fronts Dante is posted to -- a firm but chaste courtship is cemented.
That skeletal outline does little justice to Sabatini's ability to tell a charming and even lyrical love story, but without the affectation that sometimes infects lyrical writing.
The balance of the novel unwinds as a tale of the small, medium and large savageries that govern both military and civilian life during a war.
Alternate chapters detail Dante's variously funny, sad and tragic experiences of combat and Angelina's trials in Nazi-occupied Italy.
(Italy's government and king Victor Emmanuel III forced Mussolini to resign, and signed an armistice with the Allies in 1943. Hitler subsequently rescued Mussolini, and reinstated him as a puppet dictator in northern Italy.)
All the ingredients are here -- good plot, great narrative pace, solid three-dimensional characters and mesmerizing evocations of times and places.
Ultimately Dante's War is a nifty example of the versatility of writing that aspires to be art.
Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.