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The Sunday Telegraph: "Just the thing to wake you from wintry hibernation, this book is a firecracker. The world of Margherita Dolce Vita jumps from the page into three-dimensional life, fizzing with wit and wisdom."

Date: Jan 6 2007

A tale of the good and the not-so-good life

Just the thing to wake you from wintry hibernation, this book is a firecracker. The world of Margherita Dolce Vita jumps from the page into three-dimensional life, fizzing with wit and wisdom. Stefano Benni is a well-known Italian satirical novelist who likes jumping genres. This novel mixes cartoon strip, socio-political fable, magical realism and family chronicle. No wonder Dario Fo loved it: there's a rapturous blurb by the indestructible old satirist on the back. He's not alone – back home the book sold 100,000 in two weeks. It's easy to see why.

The Dolce Vitas live just outside town, and value the vestiges of nature still left around them. Flawed and likeable, they eat Mamma's home cooking, and live in three generations of comfortable chaos. That's until the Del Bene family arrive, the spawn of 21st-century TV culture, instantly sinister in their perfection.

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What makes this such an exhilarating ride is the language, full of zip and zing, in a tremendous translation by Anthony Shugaar. Stefano Benni loves to play with language, his books delight in inventive or specialist vocabulary. Irresistible neologisms and freewheeling imagery are drafted in from the Alamo to the Zambezi, from the desert fox to the sea cucumber. You never know what's coming next.

Verbal acrobatics give power to the teenage narrator Margherita, who is plump and has a heart defect. Worldly beyond her years, she delivers her local universe to us with an ironic punch. The descriptions of her family that open the book are a tour de force, starting with her dog. From the pterodactyl muzzle to the water buffalo nostrils, this is one of the finest comic portraits of a dog anywhere outside of James Thurber.

Margherita is the book's moral compass. Despite her pithy revelations of her family's – and her own – weak points, she is in fact generous towards human frailty and excoriating towards intolerance, betrayal and hypocrisy. The neighbours are rich in these latter, as their evil seduction of the Dolce Vitas advances. Margherita is torn between fascination and repulsion – will she resist and rescue her family from their clutches? Read on.

by Harriet Paterson