Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, dystopian, Fiction, Italy, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020

‘Anna’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Cover image of Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti

Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 273 pages; 2017. Translated from the Italian by Johnathan Hunt. Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

A deadly virus has killed every adult in Italy and the world has irrevocably changed. There’s no electricity, no transport, no food. The cities are empty, the roads quiet. The world is run by children, who fight among themselves for survival, and feral dogs roam the countryside. The date? October 2020!

Reading Niccolò Ammaniti’s post-apocalyptic novel Anna right now was quite a freaky experience. When I found it lurking on my Kindle I had no idea about its contents. There was no blurb, I just knew that I liked the author’s work having previously read his novels I’m Not Scared (published in 2003) and Me and You (2012). So when I realised it was about a deadly pandemic I wondered what the universe was telling me! The whole book felt scarily prescient.

Set in Sicily

Set in Sicily, the story follows 13-year-old Anna, who lives on Mulberry Farm with her nine-year-old brother, Astor. The siblings have been living alone for four years following the death of their mother from a flu-like virus.

The virus, which has killed every adult in the world, lies dormant in children, appearing only when they reach puberty.

When you reach maturity, red blotches start to appear on your skin. Sometimes they appear straight away, sometimes it takes longer. When the virus grows in your body you start to cough, you find it hard to breathe, all your muscles ache, and scabs form in your nostrils and your hands. Then you die.

Much of the book’s plot centres on two kinds of jeopardy. The first is the threat posed by Anna and Astor wandering the now lawless land in search of food, where every stranger is a danger and wild dogs have the potential to eat them alive; the second is Anna’s countdown to puberty because as soon as she gets her first period it’s likely she’ll also develop the illness that will kill her.

Girls’ own adventure story

It reads very much like a girls’ own adventure story as Anna leaves Mulberry Farm to not only look for supplies but to follow the instructions left by her mother: head for the mainland in case there are adult survivors living there.

Along the way she loses Astor, finds him again, meets up with other children, some of whom are violent and dangerous, others who are helpful and friendly, and chases a rumour that there’s an old lady living in a hotel who has a cure for the virus. She also finds a wild dog who becomes a loyal companion.

I can’t say I loved this book; I think I found it a little too close to the bone given the current covid-19 pandemic. But the writing is beautiful in places, the storytelling is masterful, the characters are well-drawn and the atmosphere is suitably dark and menacing. It’s a heartfelt portrait of sibling loyalty and ends on a hopeful note.

This is my 13th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I actually requested this as a review copy from NetGalley when it first came out, but never got around to reading it — until now. Timing is everything, right?

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Setting

‘Me and You’ by Niccolò Ammaniti

Me-and-you

Fiction – hardcover; Canongate; 155 pages; 2012. Translated from the Italian by Kylee Doust. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Sometimes it is the shortest books which pack the biggest punch — and this is especially true for Italian author Niccolò Ammanitis latest novel Me and You. In just 155 pages, Ammaniti takes us into the world of a teenage boy, who deceives his parents into thinking he is going on a skiing trip with friends, only to have his world turned upside down by the discovery of a family secret.

A tale of deception

When the book opens Lorenzo Cuni is 24 years old and staying at a hotel in Cividale del Friuli, in northern Italy. He has a piece of paper with him that was written by his sister Olivia ten years earlier, when she was 23.

The story then backtracks to February 2000, when Lorenzo was 14 and a bit of a loner. His wealthy parents, deeply troubled by his behaviour, have sent him to a psychologist, who has diagnosed him with “an inflated sense of self-importance”. But it’s clear that Lorenzo doesn’t have any social skills and finds it difficult to make friends — not without want of trying.

One morning I was at home with a fake headache and I saw a documentary on television about insects that mimic other insects. […]
I had been going about it the wrong way.
Here’s what I had to do.
Imitate the dangerous ones.
I wore the same things they wore. Adidas trainers, jeans with holes in them, a black hoodie. I messed up the parting in my hair and let it grow long. I even wanted to get my ear pierced but my mother forbade me. […]
I walked like them, with my legs wide apart. I threw my backpack on the ground and kicked it around.
I mimicked them discreetly. There’s a fine line between imitation and caricature.

When he hears a group of teenagers he longs to be friends with talk about a ski trip they are going on, he goes home and tells his mother he has been invited to go with them. He then sets up an elaborate scam in which he spends the week hidden in the never-used basement of the family home with his computer games, a copy of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and plenty of food and drink.

But when his much older half-sister, whom he barely knows, unexpectedly unlocks the door to the basement, Lorenzo’s secret looks set to be exposed. What he doesn’t realise is that Olivia, whom is estranged from the family, has secrets of her own to keep…

The book’s biggest punch, however, comes at the very end, when we discover exactly why Lorenzo is in northern Italy ten years after his week in the basement.

A simple prose style

I’ll admit that the faux naive writing style initially grated, but once I realised that it is deliberately written as if by an immature 14-year-old, I got swept away by the story. By maintaining a certain level of tension throughout, Ammaniti has crafted quite a page turner — for instance, I kept waiting for Lorenzo’s mother, who checked up on him via mobile phone almost every day, to find out his secret.

But the story’s real strength lies more in what is not said: why is Olivia estranged from the family? Why is Lorenzo so (sickeningly) sentimental about his mother? Why does he have so much trouble fitting in at school? These allow room for the reader to figure things out — to read between the lines, so to speak — and to join the dots without Ammaniti having to spell every single little thing out.

This might be a highly condensed story, but it deals with big themes — family, shame, deception, and our need to be accepted by our peers and loved by those closest to us. And it beautifully captures that time on the cusp of adulthood when our childish view of the world is changed forever.

Me and You — which reminded me somewhat of Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, one of my favourite reads from last year — is Ammaniti’s fourth novel. His first, I’m Not Scared, has also been reviewed on this site.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2007

Books-of-the-yearYes, it’s that time of year again, time to look back on 12 months’ worth of reading to see what stands out and to choose 10 titles as my favourite novels for 2007.

It’s been a weird year, not least because my professional life got ratcheted up a few gears in May and the pace has been fairly relentless ever since. This means my reading (and blogging) time has been seriously curtailed, but I’ve still managed to devour at least one book a week.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s my top 10 (in alphabetical order by book title):

Between Two Rivers by Nicholas Rinaldi (2005)
‘One of those rare novels that takes a simple premise — the lives of the residents in a tower block in downtown Manhattan — and turns it into something truly special, in prose that is, by turn, elegant and shocking, eerie and mesmerising.’

Digging to America by Anne Tyler (2007)
‘While there is no real storyline to speak of, Tyler is able to explore two different views of America — the insider’s and the outsider’s — with tenderness and insight.’

The Gathering by Anne Enright (2007)
‘Amid the dark, often depressing, subject matter there are chinks of light that make the novel surprisingly witty and, in a perverse kind of way, uplifting.’

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti (2003)
‘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.’

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (2007)
‘A remarkable, utterly engrossing book that cannot fail to move any reader, no matter how hardened they might be to the myriad emotions associated with art, death, life, love and loss.’

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver (2007)
‘A fascinating account of one woman’s personal growth as she learns that both men in her life are good people with character flaws and that no matter who you choose there will always be ups and downs.’

Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
‘A very cerebral book (quite clever when you consider that the lead character makes his living operating on people’s brains) until you come to the unexpected, and somewhat shocking climax, which takes the action up a gear or two.’

Strangers by Taichi Yamada (2005)
‘One of those beguiling tales told in simple, hypnotic prose.’

That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern (2003)
‘A beautiful, slow-moving book that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature.’

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany (2007)
‘A powerful, thought-provoking and controversial read, but also an entertaining and enlightening one.’

What books did you fall in love with this year?

1001 books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, Fiction, Italy, literary fiction, Niccolo Ammaniti, Publisher, Setting

‘I’m Not Scared’ by Niccolo Ammaniti

ImNotScared

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.