Having noticed that I had been reading far too many books about WWII and the awful horrifying things that occurred, I needed something light, uplifting and human to read . And wouldn't you know it. I find it, in a book set in... WWII!
But what a contrast. In the words of the author that he sprinkles numerous times through this lovely book, it is a story 'of the very first order', a wonderful story, brimming over with optimisim, charming, rich in characters, plot and just simply everything. I loved it. But of course being about the war, there is plenty of sadness and pain. But for once, somehow it doesn't leave the reader feeling sad, despondent, and downright glum about the moral compass of the human race.
With a title and book cover like this, somewhere bicycles have to feature and they do - symbols of freedom, the journey that is a life, that you have to turn the pedals to make that life happen, and you have to maintain the machine in good order to keep it going. Every chapter is headed by words of wisdom invoking the bicycle in some way. For example: "There is no space for the freestyle cyclist in our Movement. Ours is the business of acting in concert as one. Each is a spoke in the bigger wheel, a tyre on the track of profound change - Randall Ochiltree, Convener, Glasgow Socialist Cycling Club, 1938, Letter to the Glasgow Herald". Or how about this one - "War is a bit like those silly cycling races where you pedal at about zero miles an hour, and then you go like the clappers for half a minute. Either dead stop or flat out - Jeremy Forsythe, Memoirs of a Partisan, 1961". You could do what I did, and google all these quotes to find out a bit more about some of the writers....
The story opens with Luigi Ferraro, now an elderly man living in a small beachside settlement in Australia. How does he get here you wonder? The life story begins in 1931 when Luigi is ten years old and receives his first bicycle. He comes from the small mountainous village of Tescano in Italy. He lives with his mother Franca, and his Uncle Cesare who is the black smith. His best friend is Leonardo whose parents have the local bakery. His passion in life is bicycles, rebuilding, repairing, maintaining and riding them around the local area. Such a simple life, in a village where everyone knows you, and life continues as it has done for hundreds of years. Until Mussolini and his fascists come onto the scene. Luigi and Leonardo both find themselves in the Italian Army Cycling Corps, and yes it was a real organisation, and then in a rather strange turn of events fighting with the partisans in the mountains around Tescano that he knows like the back of his hand. Love is found, love is lost, friendships found and lost, there is danger, loss, renewal, reconciliation and reunion.
This book is a joy to read, narrated with a sense of wonder and optimism, as if Luigi is an innocent abroad and his very survival to an advanced age is more a matter of good luck than good management. A fabulous read, ideal for the upcoming summer holidays.