A sibling may be the keeper of one's identity, the only person with the keys to one's unfettered, more fundamental self. - Marian Sandmaier
I have mixed feelings about this book. When people say stuff like that I usually assume that what they mean is, “I didn’t love it but I didn’t hate it as much as I might have.” That’s not really the case here. What I mean is that the book made me feel a lot of different things at the same time. It’s like one of those blended fruit drinks—5 Alive jumps to mind—that have too many flavours and confuse people like me with unrefined palettes who expect orange-coloured things to taste orangey. This is as much as I knew about this book before I sat down to read it:
Lorenzo Cuni is a fourteen-year-old loner. His wealthy parents think he is away on a school skiing trip, but, in fact, he has stowed away in a forgotten cellar. He plans to live in perfect isolation for a week, keeping the adult world at bay.
The blurb actually contains ten more words, albeit in their own paragraph, but I stopped reading after the above so when what that second paragraph promised did happen I was genuinely surprised. I didn’t pay too much attention to the cover either which might’ve also given me a clue. All I saw was a silhouette of a boy with something vaguely similar to an hourglass hollowed out which I took to be symbolic of the ‘true’ Lorenzo.
There’s a fourteen-year-old boy inside me right now. Okay, maybe not exactly fourteen-year-old but someone teetering between puberty and adolescence. I wouldn’t say he represents the ‘real’ me but he’s certainly an important part of me. Not sure who was on the inside when I was actually fourteen but by then, like Lorenzo, I’d realised that appearances invariably are deceptive so the following made total sense to me:
One morning I was at home with a fake headache and I saw a documentary on television about insects that mimic other insects.
Somewhere, in the tropics, lives a fly that imitates wasps. He has four wings, just like the other flies, but he keeps them one on top of the other, so that they look like two. He has a black and yellow striped belly, antennae and bulbous eyes and even a fake stinger. He can’t hurt you, he’s a nice insect, but dressed up as a wasp, the birds, the lizards, even human beings fear him. He can mosey into a wasp nest, one of the most dangerous and well-protected places in the world, and go unrecognised.
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 the others 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. To make up for it, for Christmas, my parents gave me a scooter. The most popular one.
The fly had managed to trick them all, integrating perfectly with the waspian society. They thought I was one of them. That I was all right.
It doesn’t make him the most popular kid in school but it does take the pressure off both at school and at home because his parents worry about him not fitting in and greet any news that things might be improving for their son with whatever support they think he needs, be it a hug, a smile or a top-of-the line scooter; they’re rich, they can afford it.
Lorenzo’s not a stupid boy though. He realises that it’s all an act and the only time he can relax and be himself is when he’s on his own. The prospect of what he sees as a life of constant pretence looming in front of him fills him with dread. Acting like a ‘wasp’ doesn’t make you a wasp. He still hasn’t been assimilated into any of the cliques he pines to be a part of like the one comprising Alessia Roncato, Oscar Tommasi, Riccardo Dobosz and the Sumerian:
Spider-Man would’ve been a better example (he tried to join the FF in The Amazing Spider-Man #1) but he’s young, what does he know? The thing about this particular circle at school is that Lorenzo’s realised that they’re just like him—flies pretending to be wasps—but he has no idea how to communicate to them that he’s a… what shall we call him?... kindred spirit. He discovers that they’re going on a skiing trip and on a whim when he gets home he announces to his mother that Alessia Roncato has invited him to go skiing with her and her friends in Cortina. This news reduced his mother to tears of joy and suddenly he finds himself unable to tell her the truth so he devises a cunning plan; he will spend the week in the basement. It’s not a perfect plan—hey, he’s only fourteen and doesn’t think everything through (how, for example, will he cope with his mother’s insistence on talking to Alessia’s mother?)—but it’s a plan. One thing at a time, okay?
Of course for there to be any story here something has to go wrong. And that’s what those ten words I forgot to read would’ve let me in on if only I hadn’t already made my mind up about the book:
Then a visit from his estranged half-sister, Olivia, changes everything.
Enter the antagonist only she’s not really an antagonist; she’s more of a foil, a thorn in his side. Olivia, we learn at the start of the book, is nine years older than him and he’s barely seen her throughout his life. Their father goes to visit his daughter but she’s kept (or chooses to keep herself) at a distance from his new family. So, when she phones Lorenzo once he’s settled in the basement, he’s naturally suspicious:
‘Well. Sorry if I’m interrupting you. I got your number from Aunt Roberta. Listen, I wanted to ask you something. Do you know if your mother and Dad are at home?’
It’s a trap!
I had to be careful. Maybe Mum had suspected something and was using Olivia to work out where I really was. But Olivia and Mum, as far as I knew, didn’t talk to each other. ‘I don’t know . . . I’m away for ski week.’
‘Oh . . .’ Her voice was disappointed. ‘Well, you must be having fun.’
He really need not be concerned. She only wants to know when his parents will be out so she can come over and rummage for a box of her stuff but she doesn’t share this with Lorenzo this over the phone. The first he learns about it is when she turns up at the basement door; it’s accessed from outside. That she does is convenient because she can pose as Alessia’s mum but skipping over that bit of lazy plotting the real meat of the story begins when, after doing Lorenzo this huge favour, she informs him that she’ll also be staying the week.
This could have gone a number of different ways. Especially since they’re nothing alike. Lorenzo’s awkward, a little immature, introverted, private and actually a bit of a mummy’s boy. Apart from a few times when he was too young to remember the two have only been in each other’s company once since, two years earlier and this was what he took away from that encounter:
I had expected Olivia to be ugly and with an unpleasant face like Cinderella’s stepsisters. Instead she was incredibly beautiful, one of those girls that as soon as you look at them your face burns red and everybody knows you think she is beautiful, and if she talks to you, you don’t know what to do with your hands, you don’t even know how to sit down. She had lots of curly blonde hair that fell all the way down her back and grey eyes, and she was sprinkled with freckles, just like me. She was tall and had big, wide breasts. She could have been the queen of a medieval kingdom.
From what I could understand Olivia was crazy. She pretended to be a photographer but she just got into trouble. She’d failed her high-school exams and run away from home a couple of times, and then in Paris she’d had an affair with Faustini, my father’s accountant.
Naïve and inexperienced Lorenzo might be but he’s not stupid and very quickly he realises something else about his half-sister: she has a drug problem. And no drugs. And this was going to be a problem. Mitch Albom wrote, “Strangers are just family you have yet to come to know.” Well these two are both family and strangers and Lorenzo’s got a lot of growing up to do. The Olivia he saw two years earlier is not the same woman he has to deal with now:
Olivia was sitting on the edge of the settee, all sweaty, jiggling her legs anxiously and staring at the floor. She had taken her cardigan off. She was wearing a saggy, dark blue vest and you could see her boobs hanging down. She was so thin, all bones, with long narrow feet, a thin neck like a greyhound and wide shoulders, and her arms . . .
What did she have in the middle of her arms?
Purple spots studded with little red dots.
They don’t talk much. That doesn’t mean stuff isn’t said. Questions are asked, answered offered and that’s usually it. Neither is much of a conversationalist. If one doesn’t feel like explaining no one’s going to press them for information. She starts to go through withdrawal symptoms and her half-brother simply has to cope. Which he does and they do eventually have a moment and then it’s over. Flash forward ten years and Lorenzo’s in a café in Cividale del Friuli—the rest of the action takes place in Rome—and he’s about to see his sister for the first time since that eventful week.
Families are strange. I remember as a young boy of about ten a man knocking on our backdoor and asking to see my mum. Turns out he was my Uncle Harry—one of many uncles and aunts, I should say, but the first I’d ever met up until that point—but as far as I was concerned he was a complete and utter stranger. What was I supposed to feel for him? So I really got this book.
It has the feel of a YA novel but it’s not really. In the UK the book’s being published by Canongate. When they released The Radleys last year they also brought out a version under the Walker imprint aimed at a younger audience but I don’t see them doing that here. In the States the book came out under Grove/Atlantic’s Black Cat imprint which I thought might be aimed at young adults but not so apparently. The imprint’s been around for a while but only recently revived and the novels they’re publishing, according to Judy Hottenson, Grove vice-president of marketing and publicity, are going to be "in the Grove tradition of edgy, unusual fiction. They wouldn't sell as well in hardcover, but they're perfect in paperback for a younger, hipper audience. We think the market is calling out for something like this." Canongate’s already got a reputation for being a bit young and hip so the book’s a good-enough fit there but there’s nothing in the book that a real fourteen-year-old would be perturbed by. And there could’ve been. Probably should’ve been. In that respect Ammaniti pulls his punches as if he were writing for a younger audience. Just compare Renton going cold turkey in Trainspotting:
Relinquishing junk. Stage one, preparation. For this you will need one room which you will not leave. Soothing music. Tomato soup, ten tins of. Mushroom soup, eight tins of, for consumption cold. Ice cream, vanilla, one large tub of. Magnesia, milk of, one bottle. Paracetamol, mouthwash, vitamins. Mineral water, Lucozade, pornography. One mattress. One bucket for urine, one for feces and one for vomitus. One television and one bottle of Valium, which I've already procured from my mother, who is, in her own domestic and socially acceptable way also a drug addict. And now I'm ready. All I need is one final hit to soothe the pain while the Valium takes effect.
In this respect Lorenzo gets off easy. And so does Olivia. And us readers.
The book’s been generally well-received and rightly so. It’s a thought-provoking book with an engaging protagonist. The biggest gripe people have is its length. The book’s about 25,000 words long and Olivia doesn’t turn up until halfway through that so their story only takes about 13,000 words and that’s really not enough time to do their relationship justice. Still, this is no reason not to read the book and if, like me, you’re a fan of the novella this is definitely one to add to your collection.
Niccolò Ammaniti was born in Rome in 1966. He made his debut in 1994 with the novel Branchie. He is the author of three novels, as well as a collection of short stories. The three books which have been released in the English language and have been translated by Jonathan Hunt are I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura), Steal You Away (Ti prendo e ti porto via) and The Crossroads (Come Dio comanda). At thirty-four, he was the youngest ever winner of the prestigious Viareggio-Repaci prize for I'm Not Scared which has been translated into twenty languages. All his books, including Me and You (directed by none other than Bernardo Bertolucci), have been adapted for the cinema.