This short novel (171 pages) continues Europa’s practice of bringing interesting contemporary fiction from writers of Europe. What commends this novel most is the author’s voice underlying the first person accounts of Marco, a 13 year old Albanian- Italian boy living in a small southern Italy town, and his father who is a migrant laborer in France. Tullio, the father, returns home for a succession of Christmas celebrations, which anchor the novel’s unfolding time. Carmine Abate must be well served by Antony Shugaar, the translator of this novel (and Abate’s novel Between Two Seas, also published by Europa): the story confidently unfolds at a steady, gentle pace, with some loops forwards and backwards as the reader pieces together all the events.
Abate creates believable characters not just of Marco and Tullio, but also Marco’s teenaged half-sister Elisa (the daughter of Tullio and his first, deceased wife), Marco’s best friend and cousin Mario, as well as glimpses of Marco’s younger sister, mother, and grandmother. The remaining, significant character is a somewhat mysterious older man who becomes in separate encounters a love interest of Elisa, and an almost mythical male adult figure for Marco during a long absence of his father. In fact underneath the specific characters are recognizably archetypal people and events: the boy just coming into adolescence observing the young woman discovering her sexuality, a powerfully important but absent father, a faithful dog companion, descent into grave sickness and return to health with an altered awareness, passing time marked by religious/mythical annual events, the final crisis when the mysterious man transgresses too far into the lives of the family and Marco’s resultant action.
To Abate’s credit these motifs do not mean a too-predictable story. Rather, the narrative pace holds the reader’s attention and elicits an investment in what happens. Part of the appeal of the novel is the growing sense that we are in familiar territory, but with a fresh telling, a slice of life in all it particulars well drawn. This book is an easy night’s read, smooth, sophisticated, generous hearted.