"The Italian Chapel" by Philip Paris is a wonderfully readable and genuinely moving book that tells the story of Camp 60, an Italian Prisoner of War camp established at the beginning of 1942 on the Orkney island of Lamb Holm, and of the amazing chapel built there by the Italian prisoners. What we have is a new paperback edition of a novelised version of the story initially published in hardback in 2009.
Philip Paris has since told this story in a rather different way. His book "Orkney's Italian Chapel: The True Story of an Icon", published in 2010, presented the factual history, and both books are based on the memories of those directly involved who were still around to be interviewed when the author was undertaking his research. In other cases Paris spoke to children or other relatives of the key participants and had extensive access to private correspondence and diaries.
So, having read "the true story", is there any milage in reading a novel based on the same events? The short answer is a resounding "yes". Reading a historical account, however well written, can only ever take you so far. You can understand the facts, and read about the people, but a history can never really take you into the minds of those people, and can never really give you a true sense of what it was actually like to be there. Philip Paris's novelised version of the story brings the events vividly to life. For the first time we begin to understand what life was really like for the prisoners living and working on Lamb Holm. Even under a fairly benign regime, which became more benign after initial tensions, living and working conditions for the prisoners were hard and often miserable, especially for men whose home was a world away in the warmer climes of the south.
As he makes clear in a note at the back of the book, the author has introduced some characters of his own invention, and simplified some events, but in essence this is, once more, "the true story", just told in a very immediate way. If this were a book of fiction, there would doubtless be some villains introduced for dramatic effect. Their absence from a real story of people from different sides of a world-wide conflict, working together to make the best of the circumstances in which they find themselves, gives the book a very engaging tone. The main story revolves around the building of what is now known as the Italian Chapel, while a romantic sub-plot, based on a story told to Paris by a descendent of one of the key characters, gives the book added breadth and resonance. At the end of the day, this book comes as near as any of us will ever get to truly understanding the men responsible for one of the most remarkable buildings ever created.