The Mussolini Canal by Antonio Pennacchi

In 1932 Mussolini started to move the first of 30,000 poor sharecroppers from the north of Italy to inhabit his newly drained Pontine Marshes south of Rome. For three years farmers from the Po Valley, Friuli and the Veneto were bundled on trains and relocated south.

Mussolini's Canal is a novel of a family caught up in the largest forced internal migration in the country's history, but it is also about the draining of the Pontine Marshes and the construction of new towns south of Rome in the 1930s.

This is a useful account of the inter-war period, the beginnings of the fascist rise to power and the motives behind the support it won in agricultural areas of the country. It is also an excellent guide to the Pontine Marshes and the fascist-built cites, Latina (then called Littoria), Aprilia, Pomezia, Sabaudia, most of which are as under-rated historically and architecturally as EUR, Mussolini's masterpiece of urban development on the southern outskirts of Rome.

It is still difficult in Italy to study or write about the fascist period without being accused of sympathising with the regime. Much of the period is therefore in danger of being lost to history. Here however is a fascinating story about fascist-socialist violence of the inter-war years, of detailed planning of the train-journeys south, of the newly-built farmsteads waiting for the northern sharecoppers, of the sharecroppping system itself, of the tensions between the powerful landowners and the fascist leaders and between the poor northerners and the even poorer local population of the malaria-infested marshes south of the capital.

The book, which won the Strega Prize in 2010 but which only appeared in English this year, is all the more interesting because its author is a grandson of one of the original families. Born in Latina in 1950, with a background of first right-wing and then left-wing politics, this ex-factory worker turned to full-time writing in the mid-1990s.

If your Italian is good enough read The Mussolini Canal in Italian as the English translation doesn't do it merit.

Published by in English by Dedalus, www.dedalusbooks.com.

Mary Wilsey