In Angels of Mud we jump through time, between the interwoven stories of mother and daughter. The reader is immediately transported to Clerkenwell soon after the end of World War II, where they learn Mary’s story; about her marriage and the upbringing of her daughter Cara. Through this narrative, Nicolson paints a vivid picture of women’s lives in one of London’s Italian communities.
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Cara’s story begins in 1966, when she accepts a job in Florence and witnesses the catastrophic Arno flood, which kills over 100 people and destroys millions of artworks and rare books. It is a pivotal event in Cara’s life and she becomes one of the volunteers, an ‘Angel of Mud’, helping to recover the damaged artefacts. Great personal turmoil takes place in times of national disaster, and Cara is faced with important questions about who she is and who she wants to be.
This tale, with its twists of thwarted love and concealed sexuality, offers fresh insight into the daily lives of Fiorentini at a key time in the history of the city, while also providing, by contrast, a vivid picture of life in post war Clerkenwell. Vanessa Nicolson beautifully captures raw emotion and the complex nature of mother and daughter relationships and how easily and unwittingly a daughter can find herself following in her mother’s footsteps. She writes with an acute historical sensitivity about the two cities, both of which she knows well. Angels of Mud is as rich in topographical detail as it is in emotional truth.
What a fabulous book this is. It’s actually made up of two separate stories – the one about 18-year-old Cara who has gone to live and work in Florence in 1966 after a failed romance has left her heart-broken. The other story follows her mother Mary, married to sad, boring, old-fashioned Geoffrey (I apologise if that sounds a bit mean), but in love with another man.
In Florence, Cara meets a handsome, young Italian man called Gianni and slowly her heart starts to heal. But then one terrible night she witnesses the catastrophic Arno flood, which kills over 100 people and destroys millions of artworks and rare books. Cara is trapped in her apartment with no heating, light or telephone. With Post Offices closed she cannot even let her mother know she is safe. But this devastating event changes Cara’s life and she becomes one of the volunteers, known as the ‘Angels of Mud’, who helped to recover the damaged artefacts and restore them.
It’s a well written novel with beautiful prose and descriptions of post-war London and 1960s Florence, which are written from the author’s experience and knowledge of both cities. I learned a great deal about Clerkenwell in London, known at the time as Little Italy. Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, a place full of rare artworks, books, cultural history and fabulous food.
Both Cara and especially Mary are well-drawn, rounded characters with whom we can empathise. I felt really sorry for Mary; her life was so unfulfilling at a time when women had little opportunity to be more than housewives. By 1966 Cara had choices which her mother never had.
Many thanks to Grace Pilkington Publicity for inviting me to be part of the blog tour.
About the Author
Vanessa Nicolson has published two acclaimed memoirs, Have You Been Good? (Granta 2015) and The Truth Game (Quartet 2017). Angels of Mud is her first novel. She grew up in Florence and London, the daughter of an Italian mother and Briitsh father, and has worked as an art historian, curator and journalist. She lives in Sissinghurst, Kent.