This is a magical book which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was drawn into the story immediately by its short, terse prose. The story is set in rural Italy during the late 1970s but the descriptions of the countryside and the dialogue reminded me so much of rural Ireland where I grew up. However, unlike my happy childhood this tells the story of lost innocence, hatred and blackmail and has an incredibly sad ending.
The story is told through the eyes of a nine year old boy named Michele who lives in a rural village in southern Italy named Acqua Traverse. This sleepy, remote little village has just a few houses, money is in short supply and everybody knows everybody else. Keeping secrets and minding your own business is not an easy task. One day when Michele is out playing with his friends he stumbles upon a big secret, hidden in the ruins of an old derelict house high up in the nearby mountains. Bit by bit, Michele begins to discover that this secret has origins very close to his own family – namely his father. Michele has always looked up to his father but he is not the good man that his son thinks he is, although by the time Michele comes to realise this, his own life is in grave danger.
My internet research has informed me that Italy was renowned for kidnappings of rich people, including children in the seventies, and that in 1978 – the year the novel is set in – it peaked to an all-time high of nearly 600 kidnaps. It wasn’t uncommon for criminals in the south to kidnap people from the north and take them to the south, where they would be hidden and sometimes killed unless the ransom was paid. The novel is set loosely on one of these kidnappings. I must reiterate again how impressed I was with the writing of Niccolò Ammaniti (pictured inset). His prose is so natural and unpretentious. I have read several Booker prize novels and frankly, I believe none of them surpass the quality of writing, plotting and likeability of characters that is found in this novel. It is faultless.
Foreign writers are often overlooked, unless of course they are fortunate enough to have their work translated into English like Ammaniti. Recently, when I was in Greece I noticed many bookshops with novels in their window displays and wondered what kind of stories they contained. Of course, the same scene is played out in many other countries where the possibility of similar literary gems becoming uncovered, lies with only those who are fortunate enough to be able to read the books in the language they are written.
© Declan Henry