Author Carmine Abate grew up in Carfizzi, a small Arberesh village in the toe of Italy, and he returns to that area again* in this novel with a warm and embracing story of a young man’s growing up and his search for his place in the world. Marco has a different life from that of boys in other parts of Italy. Like his father, he may be destined to leave his home in Hora, one day, to spend long periods of time in the mines and fields of France earning enough money to support a family in Italy. Marco and his family are Arberesh, descendants of Albanians who emigrated to southern Italy from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, citizens who keep their ethnic ties, their language, and their culture alive within their small communities, which remain poor “while the world outside [gets] better. While the rest of Italy progresse[s].” As his father explains to the son who desperately misses him for the large part year that he is in France, “If I come back [home to stay], who’ll send us money so that Elisa can go to University? What are we going to eat if I come home: nails?” For Marco, however, “My father was a chronic source of pain under my skin.”
Filled with everyday details which bring the community of Hora and the difficult maturation of this young boy to life, The Homecoming Party is a coming-of-age novel, a small morality tale, a domestic drama, and a paean to the beauty which still exists in the hills of southern Italy—“This is what I imagine heaven to be,” Tullio, the father, says. Lyrical and poetic without being overly sentimental, the novel opens with Marco and his father sharing the Christmas bonfire when Marco is thirteen and concludes with the same memories, but in between these “bookends,” the chronology and the point of view change with the seasons and the holidays, and good times alternate with hard times as the family dynamics and mysteries unfold. In flashbacks, the father’s life in France before Marco was born becomes clear and makes him human, also explaining his older sister Elisa’s role within the family, while Marco’s difficult life without him also makes him understandable as he grows from the age of nine to thirteen. “I was a child who could not stand losing,” he says, explaining how he would take away the almost-sacred football, given to him by his father, and leave the other boys and the game if he were not winning.
Throughout his early life, his sister Elisa and her relationships become Marco’s introduction to love and sex, and he must defend her to his friends while also trying to figure out what is going on with “the man with the light blue eyes,” a man who is much older than she, with “salt-and-pepper hair.” When Marco becomes deathly ill and misses two and a half months of school, his father is away, and it is the man with the light blue eyes who assumes the role of his missing father, teaching him how to swim, getting him caught up on his schoolwork, and hoping to ensure that Marco will not reveal his illicit relationship with Elisa.
All the events from the past and all the symbols that have evolved in the course of the novel—Spertina the dog, the football, the imagery of Christmas and Easter, and the wild boar Marco has hunted with his father—come together in the conclusion. Tullio, the father, has an opportunity to become a real father, and Marco has a chance to become a hero. “Leave or I’ll pull the trigger,” takes on new meaning in the course of the novel, as the importance of family and the responsibilities associated with it become clearer for Marco.
Abate has created a book with epic themes in a novel which is almost as short as a novella, using clear and often poetic imagery, natural dialogue, a limited number of characters, and meticulously planned, non-linear chronology to allow him to say all he needs to say in very few words. The novel never becomes saccharine and never patronizes the reader, despite the emotional connections the author deliberately cultivates. By emphasizing the characters’ natural, uncomplicated reactions to important events, and keeping those reactions consistent with the ages of the characters, he allows readers from other parts of the world to participate in a family whose culture is very different from their own.
*Carmine Abate’s previous novel, Between Two Seas, was also set in Calabria, in the toe of Italy.
Read this Review by Mary Whipple on Seeing the World Through Books