The Woman Who Shot Mussolini by Frances Stonor Saunders

I don’t know about you but I don’t read a lot of non-fiction.  In fact, I hardly read any non-fiction books for pleasure until I joined my book group last year.  There’s so much wonderful fiction to read, transporting me to so many imaginary worlds, that I’ve never really wanted to give my time to reading anything else.

But I’ve recently discovered the joy of being introduced to extremely accessible historical non-fiction, which takes me on an equally fascinating journey into the unknown, yet concludes leaving me with a deeper insight into the focus of the book.  Plus I’m not left with fiction based on fact.  I’m left with the sometimes astonishing, sometimes shocking, realisation that these events really happened and are backed up with actual evidence.

In The Woman Who Shot Mussolini we are guided through the social and governmental politics of Europe before and during the Second World War.  Stonor Saunders’ voice as narrator is clear but not intrusive.  She presents her own opinion of Mussolini (and we are never in any doubt what she thinks of him and his Fascist regime) but she also clearly outlines the opposite view held by his supporters at the time, which included not just Italians but also the British public.  The amount of support for Mussolini was quite shocking to discover; it’s not something which I’ve ever learnt in school (but then when does school ever really touch on a subject where the British are in the wrong?).

We are also introduced to Violet Gibson, the woman who shot Mussolini in 1926, and who could have changed the course of history had her aim been just a few inches more on target.  Through delving into her fascinating life story we are introduced to Irish politics, the repressive treatment of women, the disdain for Catholicism, the handling of madness and the wider world of European politics during the early twentieth century.  In particular, the frighteningly wide criteria defining mental illness at the time and the appalling treatment of patients deemed mentally ill (by both doctors and relatives) are not hidden away but are brought to light and given due recognition.

Of course, all facts have to be presented with a certain amount of bias, so when reading non-fiction you still need to be a responsible reader and consider whether the interpretation of the book’s events is the only possible one.  Having said that, I feel an awful lot more knowledgeable having read this easy-to-digest book, and a little ashamed of my previous ignorance.  It’s definitely inspired me to try other non-fiction.  I also read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot a few months ago and was similarly bowled over by this extremely accessible history of a poor black American woman and the investment of science in her cancer-stricken cells.  If anyone has any suggestions about other non-fiction you think I might enjoy, please let me know!

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