REVIEW: Beneath A Scarlet Sky, Mark Sullivan

Friday, 6 October 2017

Pino Lella wants nothing to do with the war or the Nazis. He’s a normal Italian teenager—obsessed with music, food, and girls—but his days of innocence are numbered. When his family home in Milan is destroyed by Allied bombs, Pino joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps, and falls for Anna, a beautiful widow six years his senior. In an attempt to protect him, Pino’s parents force him to enlist as a German soldier—a move they think will keep him out of combat. But after Pino is injured, he is recruited at the tender age of eighteen to become the personal driver for Adolf Hitler’s left hand in Italy, General Hans Leyers, one of the Third Reich’s most mysterious and powerful commanders.
Now, with the opportunity to spy for the Allies inside the German High Command, Pino endures the horrors of the war and the Nazi occupation by fighting in secret, his courage bolstered by his love for Anna and for the life he dreams they will one day share. 
Can I just take a minute to reflect on the reading experience that I had with this book? Beneath a Scarlet Sky truly has to be one of the most vivid and poignant books I have read in a very long time. Addictively written, it is easy to read in a small number of sessions, despite the large page count and, through its protagonist and its rather hypnotic writing-style, it manages to create an image of Italy during World War 2 that is both horrifying and oddly uplifting. 
Pino and the people who are around him, risk everything they have to overthrow the Nazis and rescue as many innocent people as they are able to - the image of these characters, and the people in real life who they are based on, reminds us of those who exist in this world just to bring a little light to its darkness. Throughout these actions, whether it be sending the allies intel on the Nazis or actually smuggling Jews out of the country into Switzerland, there is a real undercurrent of danger that reveals the true horrors of war. People are killed in truly horrific, barbaric, heartbreaking ways with very little justification, and you truly care whether each character you are introduced to, survives to the end of the war or dies at the hands of the Nazis.
Beneath a Scarlet Sky is violent, yes, but I think that it has to be to be able to depict the real lives of people living under the rule of the Nazis. In my high school history lessons the study of World War Two was very Anglo-centric, the way things normally are in British schools, and I had never even considered some of the horrific realities of the war for people in German-occupied countries. People being hung with barbed wire in the trees, forced labour camps in which many were worked to death, and bodies being left in the place that they fell. If these, and many many more hard to stomach aspects of the war were left out of a portrayal of World War 2 Italy, it would almost feel like an insult to the victims who lived and died in these horrific ways.
What makes it all the more horrifying, if that is truly even possible, is the way Mark Sullivan chose to humanise the members of the Nazi party who appear in the novel; giving them positive traits, childhoods, and people they love and who love them. This blurs the line between the distinct categories of good and evil, and makes them more human in a way that only makes the idea of them more horrific - they’re not cartoonish or one-dimensional, they’re very real people in the same way that the Nazis were.
Choosing to focus on the tale of Pino Lella is an interesting juxtaposition in the novel - he beams at a Nazi’s praise and saves his life more than once, and usually that would put him distinctly in the category of evil, but he is the farthest character from evil that I have ever encountered. In Pino you see a true hero, a normal teenager who has been forced into adulthood by the realities of war and yet still retains a sense of childlike romanticism and idealism in the way that he thinks about his future, which never fails to remind the reader of the boy’s young age.
Pino Lella’s story, and the one of the people around him, is one that I truly believe that everyone needs to read at least once in their life. If only to remind us all of the world’s heroes and that they may take the most unlikely of shapes.

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