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Shelf Awareness: "Never have 167 pages seemed so short."

Date: Jul 20 2010

Shelf Talker: A short but intense novel about an Italian village, a family with a lovable dog and a mysterious stranger--written with bittersweet humor and emotion.

Never have 167 pages seemed so short. This potent new Italian novel from Europa Editions reads way too fast and then the reader is left wet-eyed and awestruck at the emotional wallop of this simple narrative.

In the little southern Italian town of Hora, where an old-fashioned form of Albanian called Arberesh is spoken, the traditional Christmas bonfire is roaring to burn away "all our worst memories." Thirteen-year-old Marco suspects he knows what his father is thinking about, and as father and son swap stories before the bonfire's flames, they come closer and closer to talking about the family's dark secret.

Marco's father works long hours of construction in France, where he can earn enough to support his family--but at the heartbreaking cost of living away from them. His return trips to the village each year at Christmas are the highlights of Marco's young life. With his dog Spertina leaping and yapping with joy, with all the neighbors rejoicing (Marco most of all), his father distributes presents; in the opening sequence, he gives his eight-year-old son a handsome leather soccer ball, with which Marco becomes the dictator of the neighborhood boys.

When an angry boar turns on barking Spertina and gores her nearly to death, a mysterious stranger with salt-and-pepper hair and intense blue eyes appears out of nowhere, approaches grieving Marco and his father, and saves the dog's life by sewing up the wound. This nameless man will appear again and again as the years pass, and will play more than one role in the mystery that haunts the novel. The characterizations are swift and rich, as author Carmine Abate (Between Two Seas) brings to life Marco's mother, who solves all of her problems with food; Marco's troubled, sullen older sister, Elisa, who is hiding a secret life; and their old grandmother, who scrupulously polices the doctor's orders.

Abate creates a complex young narrator in Marco over the six-year span of the story, and paints a picture of village life that always rings true. Drenched with emotion, with the most lovable pooch in years scampering through the pages, The Homecoming Party has the achingly bittersweet humor of Fellini's Amarcord. Here is pure reading joy, with a father and son who are equally vulnerable, a plot that comes together neatly at the end with a gasp, and all served up hot and spicy like a hearty serving of pasta e fagioli.

By Nick DiMartino