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Corelli's Mandolin    by Louis De Bernieres order for
Corelli's Mandolin
by Louis De Bernieres
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 1995 (1994)
Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Corelli's Mandolin garnered well-deserved rave reviews when it was published a few years ago, and it was recently made into a major movie. Two separate and unconnected people recommended it to me as an ideal book club pick, with much meat for discussion. Written by British author De Bernieres, the novel is set on Greek Cephallonia, a real island in the Ionian Sea south of Corfu. The story starts just before World War II, when Cephallonia is still an innocent paradise in which most men are fishermen and women follow traditional female roles. The book takes a leisurely pace with many wonderful descriptions of the lyrical magic of Cephallonia before the war (which left me wishing I could visit it). Since the movie version was released last summer there has indeed been a surge in tourism for the island.

De Bernieres depicts a wonderful cast of very memorable characters including two men who are best friends but also individually a staunch royalist and a Communist. There is the island strong man who can lift a cannon, and makes his living amazing the residents. The village priest is a pleasure-loving man who undergoes a radical transformation during the war and becomes a religious zealot. Later there are the various Italian and German soldiers who occupy the island, including 'l'Omessuale', and a German soldier who befriends an Italian soldier, but still retains his strong Aryan sense of superiority. The different chapters alternate points of view among the many characters, both major and minor, to show a full picture of all that is happening.

The three main characters are fully-fleshed so that the reader really feels she knows them. Dr. Iannis is the local doctor who has not received formal training but picked up extensive medical knowledge while serving in the Greek navy all over the world. After his wife's death he educated his daughter Pelagia to speak Italian and know more of the world than any of the other island women. The third key protagonist is Captain Antonio Corelli, who arrives with a group of soldiers to occupy the island after the Italians invade Greece in the early days of the war. Corelli is a reluctant soldier but enthusiastic musician and is billeted at the doctor's house. Initially Pelagia and Iannis do not want to have any dealings with the enemy, but Corelli eventually disarms them with his infectious and charming personality and his mandolin-playing.

At first, Corelli and his men are shielded from the action and enjoy a peaceful interlude amidst the horror of war. They have their 'La Scala' group which often sings while the men are sitting in the latrines. There is sufficient time for the attraction between Pelagia and Corelli to take root and it develops into love. Unfortunately, as the war progresses, the innocence of Cephallonia is shattered forever. De Berniere skillfully shows the insanity, cruelty and stupidity of the war with the actions of its many players - politicians, soldiers, Communist partisans and civilians, including Greeks, Italians, Germans and the English. If there was ever an anti-war book, this is it. Corelli and his men are inevitably drawn into the war, and we are faced with the question of whether a gentle musician can also be a soldier.

Since Corelli's Mandolin is over four hundred pages long, those more accustomed to the faster pace of mysteries or thrillers must have patience. However, the reward is a wonderful book which explores many issues. Anyone who has seen the movie will find viewing it a pale shadow of the very rich experience of reading the original.

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