‘The plague of pederasty in this province’s capital is worsening and spreading because youths so far unsuspected are now so taken by this form of sexual degeneracy…In the absence of a particular law, we must resort, in the case of the most obstinate offenders, to the use of confino.’
Alfonso Molina, Chief of Police, Catania, Sicily 1939
Mussolini’s Island is the unforgettable debut novel from Sarah Day, just published by Tinder Press in hardback.
This is a heartbreaking story about a time in history I knew nothing about. Please read on for my thoughts…
Francesco has a memory of his father from early childhood; a night when everything for his family changed. Since then, he has vowed to live by his missing father’s words. Non mollare. Never give up.
When Francesco is arrested with a group of young men and sent to the island of San Domino, he knows someone has reported them to the fascist police. Locked in spartan dormitories alongside lovers, friends and enemies, resentment and suspicion between the prisoners grows each day.
Elena, a young island girl, is drawn to Francesco, even as her family try to keep her away from him. When she discovers the truth about the prisoners, the fine line between love and hate pulls her towards an act that can only have terrible consequences for all.
Based on the true story of the persecution of gay and bisexual men in fascist Italy, MUSSOLINI’S ISLAND is a powerful exploration of sexuality and desire, and of the desperate acts committed when individuals fight for their lives and their rights.
Mussolini’s Island is a novel that completely took me by surprise. I was initially attracted by the striking cover but as I read the ‘blurb’ I immediately knew that this was a book I would savour and take my time with.
Now, I make no secret about the fact that I love Italy. Having spent many a holiday there over the years, it is a country that I hold dear to my heart. The scenery, the food, the people, all truly wonderful. Everyone of us has a history, as does every country and Italy’s is one that many of us are familiar with. But Sarah Day has delved into a little piece of Italian history that many of us were oblivious to.
Mussolini’s Island takes us to Sicily, in the 1930’s. Fascism is taking hold in the minds and souls of many citizens. Mussolini is leading a campaign to rid society of unwanted degenerates that degrade the Italian culture ‘Fascism is now clearly defined not only as a regime but as a doctrine’
One such group that ‘needed’ to be confined were gay and bisexual men. Unmarried men were forced to pay high taxes and others were rounded up and sent to the island of San Domino.
Writer Isabel Costello has a wonderful post on her blog The Literary Sofa which gives you a powerful insight into Sarah’s visits to the island.
‘In the end, I tried to write the island exactly as it is. Beautiful, forbidding and remote. A paradise, and a prison – depending on who you are, and the time in which you live.’
Read the full article here ~ Writers on Location – Sarah Day on the island of San Domino, Italy
Mussolini’s Island focuses on the story of one young man, Francesco.
Originally from Naples, Francesco and his mother fled their home, in fear, to start a new life in Sicily. Under the cover of new identities, they live a very different life in Catania. Francesco is a very confused individual with regard to his sexuality and it isn’t long before he falls in with a group of boys, known as the ‘arvulo rossu‘ boys ~ ‘the name was for the tree the younger arrusi sometimes met beneath on the corner of a street by the docks in Catania…young men in their twenties without the luxury of their own homes’
As Francesco himself thinks..’he has learned to be quiet, to guard what he says and who he talks to. It is what drew him to the arrusi in the first place, perhaps, that acquired art of silence.’
With the new Fascist regime in place, life for the arrusi becomes very dangerous. Meeting in low key places and dance halls, these boys flit along the back streets of Catania, having clandestine meetings with lovers in the shadows of the night.
Francesco soon realises his life has moved beyond his control and it isn’t long before he is swept up by Molino’s madness and exiled with the arussi to the secluded island of San Domino. There, the lives of these boys are no longer their own. Imprisoned in dormitories, alongside the primogeniti – the more wealthy arrusi – all are stripped of their independence and forced to live side by side.
Sarah Day has intertwined the historical facts of this time with the story of one young man who is trying to protect the ones he loves, while also trying to live his life with his head held high, looking at the stars.
Francesco constantly strives to follow his father’s advice of Non Mollare ~ Never Give Up but with a society always fighting against him, it is a fierce battle to fight.
I adored Mussolini’s Island.
A wonderful book covering such deplorable true events, yet beautifully handled by Sarah Day. The quality of the research is evident throughout the novel, with various quotes from historically noted facts, interspersed with a fictional story.
This is an unbelievable debut from a writer. I have no idea where Sarah Day will travel to next but I do hope I get to share the journey.
Purchase Link ~ Mussolini’s Island
About Sarah Day:
Sarah Day is a London based writer and science communicator. Her first novel, ‘Mussolini’s Island’, will be published in February 2017 by Tinder Press.
With a background in the history and philosophy of science, she has also written non fiction for publications including The Guardian, The Vagenda and the British Society for Literature and Science. She works as an Earth Science Communicator at the Geological Society of London.