REVIEWED BY KAREN BYROM
When friendship leads to forbidden love …
This richly drawn, empathetic coming-of-age story takes us back to the late 1950s and the friendship between two young girls – narrator Bridget and “too-cool-for-school” Isabella.
The girls are a complete contrast. While Isabella is wild and daring and popular with everyone, Bridget’s on the outside of the group. She’s acutely aware of her difference as mixed race – her mother is Egyptian – and embarrassed by her sister Rhona’s anorexia.
She is in thrall to Isabella’s careless affection – but somehow never sure of her friendship. What do her occasional intimate gestures mean? As her sexuality is awakened, Bridget burns with longing to discover more …
A year in Italy
At 17, the two girls leave their American convent school for Italy, where they will spend a year studying art and Italian, attended to by a convent of silent nuns.
Bridget sees it as the ideal opportunity for her and Isabella’s intimacy to grow, but of course, they are not the only young women in the convent. As Bridget sees Isabella draw away from her, jealousy sets in and resentment flares.
A suitably thrilling climax follows as the darkness below the innocence of girlhood friendship surfaces into obsession and rage!
This is a wonderful story of friendship and forbidden love. The plotting is subtle and slow-paced but never less than gripping as we get to know Bridget, warts and all.
Lying with ease, painfully honest with herself
She has so many issues to contend with – she is painfully aware of the careless slights of other girls, and prefers to keep her family background to herself, lying with ease – and usually getting away with it.
But she is painfully honest with herself and the reader, and you’ll fall in love with her despite her flaws.
Certainly, the other girls at the academy love her, and she’d be popular without riding on Isabella’s coat tails. But her obsession with her friend blinds her to her own true worth.
Isabella grows on you! Her careless warmth develops into something much deeper as she grows into adulthood and finds her destiny at the Academy, continuing her friendship with Bridget, but forming bonds with the other girls, too, and with the one nun who is allowed to speak – Sister Theresa.
Here is another superb character whose life, though so very different, has parallels with Bridget’s.
The tragedy is, Bridget can’t see it.
Atmospheric, sensual and compelling
Along with a skilful portrayal of the characters, the wonderful prose evokes rich atmosphere. From the small town life of America to the stunning scenery of the Italian convent; from the silence of the nuns to the chatter of the scholars; and the detritus of women living together – “shampoo and lipstick and damp stockings” – we are immersed in every part of the story.
An atmospheric, sensual and compelling book – and I love the ambiguity of the title! Is Isabella the Belladonna of the book? Or does it refer to the poison of obsession that drives Bridget to do the things she does? Really, read this one!
Belladonna by Anbara Salam is published by Fig Tree in hardback RRP £12.99
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