This is the Italian author’s debut in English translation and it was one of those “happened upon” books while perusing Barnes & Noble while I was searching for a gift for a friend’s birthday. A wealth of excellent fiction has been coming out of Italy the past decade or more and this short novel sits along side them for it’s originality. An extremely heartbreaking and highly disturbing novel to say the least.
The story is narrated by Luca, an eight (or ten?) year old boy who lives with his single mother. We experience everything through Luca’s head so the reader gets just hints of his mother’s life, which is filled with relationship, emotional and psychological problems. We experience his attitudes towards the adult world through snippets of conversation his mother has with her friends and string of boyfriends who Luca refers to as “his dads”. You already know that Luca’s father is not in the picture and he refers to himself as a “half orphan” (which makes me assume that his father his no longer among the living). He is also referred to as an “orphan” by his peers and classmates. So frightened is he of becoming an orphan that what happens next is where the most emotionally wrenching and disturbing element of the novel comes in.
One morning, Luca’s mother simply doesn’t wake up and much to Luca’s horror, he realizes that she had died in her sleep. He is more afraid of becoming an orphan and being taken away to an orphanage (in which he describes in detail why he never wants to be in one) than he is that his mother is lying dead in her bedroom, he decides to simply carry on as if nothing happened, even as his mother’s corpse begins to stink up the apartment.
This is not to say that Luca isn’t effected by this. As we continue to see things through his eyes and through his thoughts, you get the feeling that he’s doing his best, through memories and transgressions, to avoid having to deal with reality. He immerses himself in his own head and along with his pet cat Blue, try to carry on: continuing to go to school, do the food shopping (by finding his mother’s ATM card and code in her box of papers), feed the cat, do the laundry, etc. As each scene progresses you are on the edge of your seat wondering how its all going to turn out and most importantly, how long it will take before Luca will finally break.
The reader is only given tidbits about Luca’s mother’s life and about who she is and what exactly her problems are but there is the sense that perhaps Luca wasn’t a planned pregnancy and she was doing her best to raise him as best she could despite her psychological and emotional problems. Her death isn’t specifically explained either - was it accidental from ingesting all her medication, or was it suicide? You never really know for sure.
As for the novel’s ending, I won’t give it away because this is a novel that has to be experienced. However, it’s extremely heavy and quite emotionally draining. Horrifying to think about since you are so immersed in Luca’s mind, you can’t help but feel extreme empathy for him. Not for the weak hearted, for sure, but a highly original and well written book that you will never forget. That I can guarantee.