Roberta Writes: Book review – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

What Amazon says

The acclaimed story of a timeless place that one day wakes up to find itself in the jaws of history: “An exuberant mixture of history and romance, written with a wit that is incandescent” (Los Angeles Times Book Review).

The place is the Greek island of Cephallonia, where gods once dabbled in the affairs of men and the local saint periodically rises from his sarcophagus to cure the mad. Then the tide of World War II rolls onto the island’s shores in the form of the conquering Italian army.

Caught in the occupation are Pelagia, a willful, beautiful young woman, and the two suitors vying for her love: Mandras, a gentle fisherman turned ruthless guerilla, and the charming, mandolin-playing Captain Corelli, a reluctant officer of the Italian garrison on the island. Rich with loyalties and betrayals, and set against a landscape where the factual blends seamlessly with the fantastic, Corelli’s Mandolin is a passionate novel as rich in ideas as it is genuinely moving.

My review

Background

The story, about Mussolini’s invasion of Greece in 1940 and the aftermath of WWII, is set primarily on the Greek Island of Cephalonia. Dr Iannis and his beautiful daughter, Pelagia, live a peaceful island existence where Dr Iannis, who gained his medical experience while working on ships and not from attending college, tends to the sick. Pelagia looks after the house, and it soon becomes evident she’s had rather an unusual upbringing for a Greek woman at that time. It is soon disclosed that Pelagia’s mother died when she was a baby, and she has been raised by her father who has educated her.

Pelagia is being wooed by Mandras, a young local fisherman, who is full of fun and has a beautiful body from swimming in the ocean with his three dolphin friends. Pelagia mistakes sexual attraction for love and becomes engaged to Mandras in August on the feast day of St. Gerasimos. She is unsure about this commitment and receives little support from her father, who thinks Mandras is too uneducated to make his daughter happy. He refuses to give the pair a dowry which makes Mandras feel inferior and angry.

Dr Iannis is an interesting character who spends a lot of time at the local kapheneia with his local friends Stamatis, the royalist, and Kololios, the communist, in between tending the sick and writing a history of Cephalonia. Dr Iannis also adopts a pine marten, an animal that is disliked by local farmers, to appease a child named Lemoni and because he is natural healer.

Mussolini plots to provoke a war with Greece by blowing up a watch tower in an attempt to frame the Greeks as hostile towards Italy. The two Italian soldiers, Carlos and Francisco, who undertake this task know about the deception of their leaders but there is nothing they can do about it. Carlos is a huge man with a secret. He is gay. He has joined the army to escape having to live a life of pretence that he is straight. Carlos falls in love with Francisco and this love sustains him when the pair march against Greece at the beginning of winter. Conditions are shocking and the Italian troops are in a terrible state of starvation and illness when Francisco goes mad and commits suicide. Carlos is completely devastated, but he returns to the army after taking sick leave and continues to fight against Greece although he does not believe in Mussolini’s cause.

Back on Cephalonia, Mandras decides to join the Greece army and fight the Italians as a way of proving his worth to Dr Iannis. While he is away, Pelagia writes to him frequently, but she never receives any letters back and gradually she becomes bitter and believes he no longer loves her. She discloses her feelings and thoughts in her letters to Mandras.

The Italians eventually invade Cephalonia and take up residence on the island. Carlos is stationed near Pelagia’s village, along with a young Italian captain named Corelli. Corelli is housed in the home of Dr Iannis and takes her bed. He proves to be a nice young man with a strong musical talent and a considerate and kind manner. Over time, he and Pelagia fall in love, a most complicated situation when Pelagia is engaged to a Greek man engaged in fighting the enemy and Captain Corelli is part of an occupying force.

Themes

War

This book is set during WWII and war is a major theme including fear, hostility, starvation, exhaustion, honour, lack of honour, and other related topics.

A few quotes that demonstrate this theme are as follows:

“Since I encountered death, met death on every mountain path, conversed with death in my sleep, wrestled with death in the snow, gambled at dice with death, I have come to the conclusion that death is not an enemy but a brother. Death is a beautiful naked man who looks like Apollo, and he is notsatisfied with those who wither away in old age. Death is a perfectionist, he likes the young and beautiful, he wants to stroke our hair and caress the sinew that binds our muscle to the bone. He does all he can to meet us, our faces gladden his heart, and he stands in our path to challenge us because he likes a clean fair fight, and after the fight he likes to befriend us, clap us on the shoulder, and make us laugh at all the pettiness and folly of the living. At the conclusion of a battle he wanders amongst the dead, raising them up, placing laurels upon the brows of those most comely, and he gathers them together as his own children and takes them away to drink wine that tastes of honey and gives them the sense of proportion that they never had in life.”

“In those days Great Britain was less wealthy than it is now, but it was also less complacent, and considerably less useless. It had a sense of humanitarian responsibility and a myth of its own importance that was quixotically true and universally accepted merely because it believed in it, and said so in a voice loud enough for foreigners to understand. It had not yet acquired the schoolboy habit of waiting for months for permission from Washington before it clambered out of its post-imperial bed, put on its boots, made a sugary cup of tea, and ventured through the door.”

“What’s the news of the war?’ The doctor twisted the ends of his moustache and said, ‘Germany is taking everything, the Italians are playing the fool, the French have run away, the Belgians have been overrun whilst they were looking the other way, the Poles have been charging tanks with cavalry, the Americans have been playing baseball, the British have been drinking tea and adjusting their monocles, the Russians have been sitting on their hands except when voting unanimously to do whatever they are told. Thank God we are out of it. Why don’t we turn on the radio?”

Love

Three different aspects of love are addressed in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin: romantic love, family love, and love towards friends. The following quotes are indicative of these themes:

“Families embraced more than had been the habit; fathers who expected to be beaten to death stroked the hair of pretty daughters who expected to be raped.”

“Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

“[She] knew that it was not precisely a body that one loved. One loved the man who shone out through the eyes and used its mouth to smile and speak.”

“Men are sometimes driven by things that to a women make no sense, but she did know that Corelli had to be with his boys. Honour and common sense; in the light of the other, both of them are ridiculous.”

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this book. The style of writing from numerous points of view, allowed the author to share a far greater wealth of knowledge, perspective, and emotion. I did love this aspect, but it did take me a while to get into this style and mentally make the jumps from character to character. I am also of the view that a reasonable knowledge of the history of WWII is required for a reader to appreciate the sections written from either Mussolini’s or Metaxas’s points of view. Fortunately, I did know enough about the Italian and Greek politics of the time to work it out fairly quickly.

I am not a big reader of romance, but there was more than enough war and action in this novel to keep me interested and entertained. There are some very amusing paragraphs and conversations, and I found myself laughing aloud at times while reading, especially some of the descriptions about Greek men and their relationships with their wives and families. I also found myself crying at points due to the absolute brutality and inhuman behaviour described in some scenes. These are very emotional and compelling, but this book is not for the faint of heart.

This was a 5-star plus read for me and I think I will be reading it again in the future.

Purchase Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Amazon US

49 thoughts on “Roberta Writes: Book review – Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

  1. I haven’t read this book although I did see the movie starring Nicolas Cage and thought it was a good story. I have heard that the book was difficult to follow and I’m not a fan of multiple points of view unless done well and you always know whose head you’re in. Thanks for the good review. I may rethink about reading it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi Darlene, the beginning of this book is a little hard to follow. When the author made the first jumps of POV I was a little confused, but I soon worked it out. If you don’t know the history, it would be much harder to work out whose head you are in as the author doesn’t actually say who it is.

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  2. Thanks for another great review, Robbie! I just see you have also reviewed Teagan’s new books. Will head over asap. This one sounds like another good reading for getting historical information in an entertaining way. Honestly only reading scientific works is most times very boring. Thanks for the great review, and have a beautiful week! xx Michael

    Liked by 3 people

    1. HI Michael, I mainly read historical books, family land other dramas, poetry, and a smattering of romance and fantasy. Mind you, I am sharing a review of a sci-fi book on Thursday for a blog tour.

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  3. Roberta it is a coincidence that I just opened my computer and read your wonderful post about Corelli’s Mandolin and the quotes under WAR gave me goose pimples! I am happy that you appreciated the book:)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Staci, I do understand that point of view. I love war books and can’t stop reading them. The hope that one day I’ll understand why they happen i.e. the human psyche is a strong driver of my interest even though I know I will never unravel the reasons.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wow. If you ever figure out what drives people to physical violence in pursuit of power or greed (or anything else), I’d love to know. I like to think I have lofty goals, but I’d never physically hurt anyone, especially the innocent, to attain them.

        I do understand your perspective, too. And you’re not alone. I just struggle with it.

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  4. I’m in the ‘seen the film but not read the book’ camp! I’m not sure why I never picked it up, particularly since I’ve been to Cephalonia several times over the years, and I love to read books set in a place I’m visiting. Latterly, there were many, many references to Captain Corelli on the island: bars, restaurants and even I car hire place if I remember correctly! I guess that was the effect of the success of the film. I’m sure there’s a copy amongst my mom’s books. I must see if I can dig it out now I’ve read your review, Robbie. 🙂

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  5. A fine review for a finely crafted novel. One I read many, many years ago, so many years that I’ve forgotten the time in between then and now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HI Dave, it certainly is. One of the things that really intrigued me was that Corelli didn’t think he could accept Pelagia if she had been raped. I thought that was the real reason he ‘left’ her. It was really a terrible tragedy that he couldn’t get past that in his mind and heart.

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