Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 225 pages; 2003. Translated from the Italian by Jonathan Hunt.
Books about childhood that truly get inside the mind of a child are difficult feats to accomplish. How do you recapture the innocence, that naive sense of wonder, that wide-eyed outlook on life untouched by greater human experience without talking down to your reader or coming across as if you’re trying too hard?
Whatever the trick, Italian author Niccolo Ammaniti has achieved it. In spades.
The somewhat ludicrously titled I’m Not Scared is a delicious treat, one that transports the reader back to that time when the adult world was incomprehensible and the best thing about life was riding your bicycle throughout the long, hot school holidays that lay ahead every summer.
Set in a small Italian village enclosed by scorched wheat fields, the story is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, Michele Amitrano, who hangs out with a small group of local children, including his younger sister. One day, during a dare to race up a remote hilltop, Michele stumbles upon a sight that the others don’t see: near a dilapidated farmhouse he finds a young boy chained in a hole hidden under a sheet of corrugated iron and a mattress.
Later — and this isn’t a plot spoiler — we learn the boy has been kidnapped, and that some of the adults in Michele’s village, including his parents, are involved. This floors Michele, whose sense of childhood justice is outraged. He vacillates between sharing his discovery, or keeping quiet. He chooses the latter… with devastating consequences.
The beautiful thing about this book — aside from the well-paced plot and the gentle telling of the story — is the writing. In stripped back prose Ammaniti reveals so much about humans and the sometimes emotionally strained relationships between children and adults — and always, despite the heavy drama, humour is not that far away.
‘Papa! Papa!’ I pushed the door and rushed in. ‘Papa! I’ve got something to …’ The rest died on my lips.
He was sitting in the armchair with the newspaper in his hands looking at me with toad’s eyes. The worst toad eyes I had seen since the day I had drunk the Lourdes water thinking it was aqua minerale. He squashed his cigarette-end in his coffee cup.
Similarly, his descriptions of the rain-starved Italian countryside are so vivid you feel as if you are standing there with the sun beating down on your back.
The stream was always dry, except in winter, when it rained hard. It wound its way between the yellow fields like a long albino snake. A bed of white pointed stones, incandescent rocks and tufts of grass. After a steep part between two hills, the stream widened out to form a pond which in summer dried up into a black puddle.
The lake, we called it.
There were no fish in it, nor tadpoles, only mosquito larvae and water boatmen. If you put your feet in it, you took them out covered in dark, stinking mud.
I’m Not Scared bears striking similarities to the more recent The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas: both novels are about young boys finding themselves face to face with counterparts in dire life-and-death predicaments, both feature innocent narrators being confronted with the worst of human nature. But where The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has a neatly drawn heart-wrenching ending, I’m Not Scared packs a powerhouse punch which leaves the reader to make up their own mind as to what really happened.
Finally, a word of warning: if you intend to read this book make sure you’ve got a few clear hours to do so, the storytelling is so rich and vivid you won’t want to abandon it until the final, devastating climax is reached. I read it in one sitting, completely unaware of the ticking of the clock, a perfect Sunday afternoon treat.