Books: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

book recommendation

I’m a terrible one for judging a book by its cover. And I mean that literally, not metaphorically – I’m not at all judgemental or presumptuous when it comes to people: just books. Which is why, shamefully, it has taken me so long to come around to reading Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; I shouldn’t admit this, as someone who has both an honours degree and a master’s degree in English, but if a book’s title sounds too complicated, or indicates that the story might be about a subject I have no interest in, I shelve it. (Again, literally, not metaphorically.)

Let me hide behind my hands and, peeping through splayed fingers, take you through the exact thought process I had when I saw the title of my latest book-love, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

  1. It’s about a captain, which means it’ll be about boats and I don’t really like boats, or stories about boats.
  2. Oh God, he has a mandolin, which is either the razor-sharp kitchen instrument, in which case this could be a long slog, or the little guitar thing, in which case this could be…a long slog.
  3. The fact that the mandolin is important enough to be titular worries me: will there be numerous, long-winded references to musical works I’ve never heard of? Will there be flowery, extended descriptions of the instrument itself? I’d rather hear about the vegetable slicer to be perfectly honest.
  4. But I should really read this book, because it’s a classic and everyone says how amazing it is and also the main reading at my own wedding was an extract from it. So, you know, I need to tick it off.
  5. BUT WHAT IF IT’S ABOUT BOATS?

As it turned out, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was nothing about boats, or vegetable slicers: a couple of chapters in, after a doctor on an idyllic Greek island had removed an ancient dried pea from a man’s earhole and a giant strongman had picked up (with ease!) a priest and a donkey and also fired a cannon that he had tucked into his armpit as though it were a mere hand-pistol, I realised that this was, in fact, my perfect book.

It might be (I have to think further on this one, but it’s a distinct possibility) one of my favourite books of all time. It just has a bit of everything. Silliness, sharp wit, the saddest of tragedies and the most heart-wrenching of romances. Louis de Bernieres is my new literary hero; his depiction of occupied Greece during World War II manages to be both horrifying and greatly amusing, his characters are so alive and real that I genuinely mourned for them when (spoiler alert) they died.

The novel is set in the early part of the second world war and the main characters are self-styled (but far from inept) doctor, Dr Iannis and his fiery daughter Pelagia. They seem to live an almost enchanted life on what appears to be an idyllic Greek island – fishermen swimming with dolphins, a beloved goat that eats everything in sight, the sort of quirky, characterful locals that sound as though they’ve come straight from a children’s storybook…

Which is what makes the occupation by the German and Italian armies so horrific – it’s like dropping a graphic torture scene straight into the middle of a fairy tale. Though it’s quite a gradual disintegration into bloody chaos; for the most part of the novel, the occupation is (for the main characters, at least) more of an indignity and an inconvenience than anything else. They are lumbered with having to house an Italian army captain, Captain Corelli, who turns out to be a) rather difficult to loathe, despite the fact that they desperately want to make him feel as guilty and terrible as they possibly can and b) incredibly talented at finely slicing vegetables on his mandolin.

Not really.

But he is incredibly talented at playing on his musical instrument, and he’s also compassionate and sharp-witted and has that casual, dry sort of intelligence that’s always so attractive. To me, anyway. And to Pelagia, the doctor’s daughter, who falls head-over-heels with him, though it’s a hard-won affection and there’s no soppy, kisses-at-sunset description of their romance. Because there’s too much going on with the war by this point (keep up!) and as the story moves on, and the love-affair between Pelagia and Captain Corelli progresses, so does the occupation, with its slaughters and rapes and piles of burning men.

If this sounds too distressing, then let me tell you; I’d sworn to myself that I would no longer read anything that would fill my brain with horrors. I dwell on things too deeply; I still find myself retrieving scenes from books and films that I’ve read or watched decades ago and they still affect me, so I try to minimise the amount of morbid content that gets added to my memory bank. (There are enough terrible world events in reality – sadly they’re usually worse than anything that could be imagined in a novel.) But the horrors in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin are buffered by so much joie de vivre that you somehow feel that you must keep reading – there’s a sort of relentless good spirit shown by the characters, a bravery that refuses to be dampened or trampled down, and it’s contagious. You plough on through, exactly as they do, and because you’re so irreversibly invested in each and every character, you stay with them until the bitter end, refusing to look away even when the worst nightmares become a reality.

I say all this as though CCM is the most depressing and soul-wrenching novel you’ll ever come across, but it isn’t – rarely have I felt so uplifted and so filled with hope after reading a book. Written with impeccable attention to detail, and with an acute understanding of the way in which humans work – how they can be so completely evil, or so selfless and brave. The numerous love stories that thread their way through the novel (father and daughter, daughter and lover, and – possibly my favourite – the love that soldier Carlos, the “omosessuale“, has for his male friends) are far from conventional; they force you to take what you thought about love and turn it on its head. Love, here, is far from the “girl meets boy” sentimental sort of love – it’s superseded by the need to survive. Characters do what they have to do to get through the war alive and love, rather startlingly, takes a back seat. (Although the greatest show of love in the whole novel is – quite literally –  a monumental one and it had me in floods of tears.)

So basically, before this post ends up being as long as the novel itself: get it, read it, share it. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin has instantly entered my little literary Hall of Fame, and if you’re stuck for something to read this Bank Holiday weekend then this would be my book of choice. Let me know what you think once you’ve finished it!

I bought mine from Amazon here*.

*Outbound links are affiliate links, which means that I receive a very small percentage of any sale made. This does not affect my content in any way and does not cost you anything, but you are most welcome to Google the products on a new page if you prefer.

© 2017 A Model Recommends®: all opinions are my own and any sponsored or paid posts will always be clearly marked as an AD in the title. I accept press samples and receive product and services to review as part of my job. Outward links to retailers are affiliate links. Please see here for full "about" section and disclaimer. A Model Recommends and Ruth Crilly are registered trademarks.

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38 Comments

  1. Fi
    April 14, 2017 / 4:34 pm

    I loved CCM too! We used the ‘Love is a temporary madness’ extract as a reading at our wedding. So beautifully written xx

  2. Mary
    April 14, 2017 / 4:59 pm

    Hi Ruth, I love this book too, i read it about 20 years ago, and it stayed with me all this time.It is the most beautifully written book. Im glad you have finally read it, i think everyone should read it! love to all xx

  3. Sophie
    April 14, 2017 / 5:14 pm

    I’ve been meaning to read this for yonks… It’s now at the top of my ‘to-read’ list!
    On a slightly unrelated note, have you done a post on your literary hall of famers? I might have missed it but, if you haven’t, I’d be really interested to read it. I’m coming to the end of my undergraduate degree and it’s not long before I can finally read normal things again (!!!). I love what I study, but if I never have to read about peasants in the fourteenth century again, it’ll be too soon so I’m trying to get as many recommendations as I can! Thanks x

  4. Pen
    April 14, 2017 / 5:40 pm

    I loved this book too. It is less gory and horrific than the other books of his that I’ve read, and despite the tragic parts manages to be sunlit and lyrical. The film however, is one of the worst and most ridiculously mis-cast that I have ever seen!

  5. Patricia
    April 14, 2017 / 6:02 pm

    I loved this review – please do more! It’s made me want to read CCM, even though my thought processes would have probably been the same as yours.

  6. Maggie Kiely
    April 14, 2017 / 6:20 pm

    I loved this book too I have never seen the film due to Nicolas Cage being in it. I thought the ending was particularly wonderful.

  7. Sarah
    April 14, 2017 / 6:23 pm

    So glad you lived it. I’ve read all his books and they are fabulous. A wee warning, DON’T WATCH THE FILM. Utter pants.

  8. April 14, 2017 / 7:14 pm

    I have heard about this book so many times, but never really felt intrigued to read it. But I think you convinced me, it goes on my holiday reading list.

  9. Helen
    April 14, 2017 / 7:41 pm

    If you liked CCM then I can recommend Guernica by Dave Boling? A wonderful, lyrical novel set during the Spanish civil war – I think it would be right up your street!

  10. April 14, 2017 / 7:48 pm

    really enjoyed your review, definitely seems something to add to my reading list… disappointed in the lack of vegetable tools involved. x

  11. April 14, 2017 / 10:08 pm

    Hi Ruth, I LOVE Louis de Bernieres! I can’t believe that you’ve only just read this!! … I once stood in a long queue to have my book signed by him after a reading at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature… the poor guy was obviously rather bored of writing his name over and over again and so when this young girl from the Festival asked him if there was anything he needed… he – totally straight faced – said “oh yes, lovely, I’d like a lobster” and carried on signing… She was totally flustered and didn’t know what to say to this famous author at the top of his game … “yes, a nice lobster would be lovely, thank you very much…” and winked at me… I had to move on but I wonder what happened after..

  12. Nicki
    April 14, 2017 / 11:34 pm

    I haven’t read CCM since it came out but reading your review made me want to read it all over again. God i loved that book!

  13. Zee
    April 15, 2017 / 3:36 am

    Thank you for this! I’m always looking for something good to read, but usually find recommendations too vapid or too dark for my liking. Like you, I avoid tragic and sad books/films – they haunt me for ages afterwards (Kite Runner was amazing, but I mourned for like a week) and I’m permanently scarred by them.. So I’m so glad you touched on this! Off to grab a copy of CCM.. Thanks, Ruth :)

  14. April 15, 2017 / 7:29 am

    I must admit I had a similar thought process except I didn’t remember that the slicer was called a Mandolin. Glad you enjoyed it though, I really ought to move it from my wishlist to my cart.

  15. Sammy
    April 15, 2017 / 9:12 am

    I loved this book so much I had to visit Kefalonia, which started a long term love for the island, countless trips and getting married there! X

  16. Danielle Breachwood
    April 15, 2017 / 9:19 am

    This was one of our 20th century a-level novels (the others were Handmaids Tale and Catch 22) I quite liked it but compulsory studying and analysis can kill the joy of a book especially in the case of my husband (who was in my class) covers his ears and sings lalala anytime I mention those three books.
    I think it’s a book you don’t really get until you’re older and experienced real love, pain and loss though and despite putting the book away years ago now, it’s really as I’m older I get it and the power of it comes back reading your review.
    Oh and yes, the film is an abomination and don’t watch it if you love Carlos’ story, it’s sanitised meaning unless you’ve read the book you do not truly comprehend his final (sob) actions.

    • Barb Magill
      April 15, 2017 / 1:22 pm

      After reading the review and then googling, I saw that the book had been made into a movie. I was going to order the DVD pronto, but after reading the reviews and your comment, I will nix that idea. You just saved me $$!! Thank you.

  17. Miranda
    April 15, 2017 / 9:39 am

    I loved this book (and had similar misgivings beforehand) but can’t bring myself to watch the movie because Nicolas Cage as Captain Corelli is just so so wrong.

      • Vivella
        April 15, 2017 / 12:07 pm

        I actually saw the movie first and read the book later, I loved both.

  18. Sandie
    April 15, 2017 / 12:03 pm

    A brilliant review, Ruth. I picked up and put down CCM several times when browsing bookshops, then finally bought it and it really did have a profound effect on me and is one of my favourite books of all time.

    The other book which had a similar emotive effect is Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

    Btw the CCM movie is dreadful. Really, really bad. Awful.

  19. Nikos
    April 15, 2017 / 12:42 pm

    I would like to share a few numbers with you and your readers. Numbers that are not a work of fiction, sadly.
    During the German occupation in Greece that lasted 42 months, 38.960 Greeks were executed by firing squads. Sometimes whole villages were taken down, like Distomo, as reprisals for squad attacks. 12.103 were shot by “stray” bullets. 70.000 were killed in battle. 600.000 died of hunger. 300.000 children died before they were even born or shortly after. 111.000 were killed in concentration camps 65.000 of them Greek-Jews. 200.000 were imprisoned.
    Still, to quote my late grandmother who happened to be on an “idyllic” Greek island during occupation : ” the Italians were good to us, the Germans were plain cruel”.
    I haven’t read the book nor seen the movie. I hope it does justice to the cruelties of war and the people’s passion for life, for surviving under the most impossible times.
    Excuse me for the length of my comment and please feel free to delete it if you find it’s not fitting to to the content or the tone of your post.
    Take care Ruth,
    With respect
    Nikos

    • Maggie Kiely
      April 16, 2017 / 5:42 pm

      These figures are truly terrible and show the realities of war I thank you for sharing them

      • Nikos
        April 20, 2017 / 4:40 pm

        Thank you too for your time to read my comment and again thanks to Ruth for giving me the chance to share it

    • April 16, 2017 / 7:04 pm

      Thank you for this Nikos. I think that what I liked about the book was that it DID do justice to the cruelties of war and the people’s passion for life – in fact you’ve rather summed up, in a nutshell, exactly how I would have liked to have described it. So thank you. x

      • Nikos
        April 20, 2017 / 4:50 pm

        Thank you again Ruth. Maybe I SHOULD give this book a try. Right now I am quite immersed in Edith Hall’s Introducing the Ancient Greeks. Its a history book (not historical fiction) but very well written. It is in a way a more detailed and written account of National Geographic’s three part documentary The Greeks.
        Greetings from Greece and I do enjoy your posts – especially book recommendations. xx

  20. Barb Magill
    April 15, 2017 / 1:18 pm

    I look forward to buying and reading this book after your lovely review. No wonder I’m impressed with your writing ability… the degrees you have explain it all.
    I would also love to know what books made it into your Literay Hall of Fame. I see loads of interest by your adoring fans who love to read. Thank you, and I’m sending hugs from the states. xo

  21. Katie W
    April 15, 2017 / 2:26 pm

    I’ve literally just clicked through and purchased it. I finish my MBA next week- this will be the first fiction book I will have picked up in 4 years. I feel so excited to read CCM after this!

  22. Caroline
    April 15, 2017 / 3:23 pm

    ‘Birds without Wings’ – no further comment needed!

  23. Ruxandra
    April 16, 2017 / 5:26 am

    Half way through your review and I already ordered the book.
    Happy Easter!

  24. April 16, 2017 / 1:01 pm

    Do you know, I love Louis de Bernieres, but still haven’t got round to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin! I’m adding it to my Goodreads TBR now! :)

  25. Mansi
    April 16, 2017 / 2:49 pm

    I read this a while back but I do recall gradually losing interest and struggling until I was about a third of the way through, after which it seemed a bit rushed and disjointed. Perhaps I’m among the very few who actually didn’t quite hate the ending. I mean, it was happy-ish, bittersweet. Nevertheless, it was visceral and immersive read, and remarkably erudite, and I fell in love with the idyllic Greek island (how can you not?)

    Literally just finished reading A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan. Centers around Alice who’s trying to find the proverbial work-life balance at her new job at Scroll (not too subtle take on Amazon). Cliched, but relatable, and sharp. Think Devil Wears Prada meets Bridget Jones, but not quite. Perhaps you can check it out.
    Brilliant review btw! Will definitely go through others. Need to find something to read next weekend. x

  26. Julie
    April 16, 2017 / 7:49 pm

    I love your posts – you can write about anything and I would read it, enjoy it and take away something good . I’m a huge reader but have never read CCM. I laughed about the “judging by a cover” as I have done as well. I also tend to shy away from books that get too much hype. Sometimes I am proved wrong with those . . . Anyway, keep blogging/vlogging as you’re great at it. I’ve just added a “new” book to my list thanks to you!

  27. Nuala Murray
    April 18, 2017 / 3:56 pm

    Oh Ruth this is my favourite book of all time! Your review brings it all back to me! I really must read it again! It also made me think of my other favourite books (in case you’re interested!):
    A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini – also made me cry a lot!
    All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
    The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (I love her books!)
    And Gone with the Wind – an amazingly beautiful epic read!!

    Keep the reviews coming!!xx

  28. Kirsty
    April 23, 2017 / 8:45 am

    Beautifully written review. I studied this book at school and the story has always stayed with me

  29. angeline
    April 23, 2017 / 6:45 pm

    Gosh, judging books by their covers is something I cannot help doing either. When I was young, I refused absolutely to read books with off-putting (terribly subjective of course..) titles or ugly designs, bad font, horrible paper; instead I would seek out nice sounding pretty books. Today I’m more forgiving where titles are concerned, but still find the other aesthetic issues a challenge (especially paper and font). To add to the problem, I have a collecting habit which means I tend to purchase in sets and series. I love handdrawn art for illustrations and have scoured second hand booksellers for titles rather than get recent reprints featuring digitised artwork. It is my dream to have an entire library of gorgeous books ranging from children’s sets to novels, biographies and cookbooks and everything else in between. I am curious now with CCM and will go explore further !! Thank you ! x

  30. isabelle
    May 7, 2017 / 10:51 pm

    I work in a bookstore, selling books for living and I judge books by their covers most of the time. It is actually a reliable way of judging a book because the book industry isn’t going to put a 50 shades of Grey cover on a Catcher in the Rye book. Makes zero sense and totally different audience. The covers they select purposely is used to attract the audience for that particular book. So, judging a book by its cover, publishers want to actually judge it so it may appeal to you.

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