Captain Corelli's Mandolin - a review by Phoebe Haywood

There has – rightly – been much praise already over the years for Louis de Bernières' prize-winning novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, such that it is difficult for me to know how to add to it. Nevertheless, I am determined to convey how much of a delight it is to read this book.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin revolves around the 1941 Axis occupation of the Greek island of Cephalonia, focused on the budding romance between the music-loving Italian captain, Antonio Corelli, and the local doctor’s headstrong daughter, Pelagia. Loyalties and delineations are tested as the Italians prove a reluctant invader – Corelli is a more zealous mandolin-player than soldier – but any potential for an idyllic and peaceful life together is consistently threatened by the looming presence of the War and extremist megalomaniacs in power.

The novel was published in 1994 and remains a highly popular and influential work. Just before I started reading it, my mum mentioned how huge it was right from the start. Yet I had not unfortunately managed to read the book until this year, so I was able to look at it with a later and fresh perspective. It’s magnificent, and fully deserving of its continuing legacy.

More than anything, I love the writing style. It’s packed with wry humour and scathing wit yet can abruptly about-turn to capture the exact poignancy of a particular horror. Make no mistake, it has a serious subject, and the brutal, repugnant aspects of the war are treated with bare honesty and pathos. I didn’t cry but it was admittedly a close thing; my heartstrings were stretched taut by the end. At the same time, without detracting from or belittling the gravity of the action, it is a genuinely hilarious book. Corelli is a complete joker, while the doctor instantly embedded himself among my all-time favourite characters with his overly vitriolic history of Cephalonia, which begins “The half-forgotten island of Cephalonia rises improvidently and inadvisedly from the Ionian Sea”. To be a little ‘meta’, I am jealous of the doctor’s writing – it’s beautiful, sassy, and sharp. But the switch between such droll commentary and the gut-wrenching suffering of these comic and personable characters is what makes the book so engaging: you love the people, yet you hate what happens to them… or what they do.

Because Louis de Bernières delivers an amazing range of viewpoints in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; there is no anticipating what kind of narrative voice may be encountered next. From a satirical pamphlet against Mussolini to posthumous letters by a homosexual soldier, from the inner monologue of a certain character to a third-person perspective, every chapter gives a surprise glimpse into the mind of one of the book’s various figures. It is testimony to de Bernières' skill and nuance that each viewpoint forces the reader to really, truly consider the different life experiences that people may have had during that era. I was particularly awed by the portrayal of characters who commit truly abhorrent acts in the book, as they are not spared the finger of moral reproach even as they are given just enough of a sympathetic touch to avoid the total villainisation that distorts so many literary and historical narratives. The novel captures the sense of circumstance as an x-ray for humanity, for both our good and our bad.

In short, it’s marvellous. Funny, moving, and highly engaging, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin dances between a host of equally diverting characters as it pirouettes on the love and regret of a charismatic mandolin-player. Please read it, I beg you – and if you’ve read it before, again.

Don’t miss out on meeting Louis de Bernières himself at his ChipLitFest event, 6pm Sat 23 April The Theatre, chaired by Suzi Feay. I’m gutted that I can’t make it – so I urge you to go in my stead!