They always say that you shouldn’t tell lies, but without lies I’d already be in an orphanage – Marina Mander, The First True Lie
I’ve a problem with books narrated by young children and I’ve read a few now: I never truly believe that it’s a child that’s talking even when, as Mander does, the author goes out of his or her way to point out that their narrator is intelligent. In Luca’s case we have the word of his mother:
Mama says it’s because I was born at seven months, and seven-month babies are more intelligent.
and his teacher:
Luca displays self-confidence and a lively disposition. He is endowed with considerable intelligence and a sense of responsibility. The pupil succeeds in all subjects. He consistently applies himself, and the results are excellent. He has demonstrated a good deal of interest and ability in artistic activities and a notable interest in science and history. Kindhearted and generous, he does all he can for his classmates and is full of initiative.
We’re never told exactly how old he is but from the way other adults treat him and his physical limitations—“I’ve never been able to reach so high, above the fridge, except with the chair”—I don’t think he’s older than seven:
On the kitchen door frame you can still see the notches where Mama marked how much I’d grown: two years, three years, six years…She always makes me stand against the same wall and act serious, while she puckers her lips in a stern, professional way.
Luca lives with his mother—his father vanished years ago (he thinks of himself as a “half orphan”)—and their cat, Blue; “We called him Blue because of his breed and also because Mama loves the blues.” His mother is lonely, always on the lookout for a man but never seems to find the right one and can’t hang on to those she does manage to hook up with. She clearly loves her son but he does appear to be a handful. He’s clever, possibly precocious, but he’s still a little boy and all little boys are handfuls:
Adults like to use words like in-laws, power steering, expenses, colleague, mortgage, sciatica, and nostalgia, and especially words that end in gy, like psychology, energy, strategy, and allergy.
Mama suffers from all the gys put together.
She says that psychology’s no use to her, that no matter how much she sleeps she has no energy, that she has nostalgia for a time when a man was a man but all the same you need a strategy to find him or else to make more money, that with the pollen every year her allergies just explode, and that the vaccines aren’t worth a damn.
As for me, I’m vaccinated against all this.
Mama complains constantly, and sometimes it’s sad. But what’s strange is that when she’s truly sad, she stops complaining. She just drifts around the apartment, superslow and without saying a word, like a pouty angel.
She sounds depressed. She probably is depressed. She takes pills to help her sleep:
When Mama has nightmares, she says it’s not even possible to sleep in peace in this world, and that’s what I think too. Other times she says the pills have stolen her dreams, that sleep is just an inky-black nothingness, and she wakes up confused and doesn’t know which way is up. Sometimes she makes coffee without putting in the water, or else the coffee.
“Don’t talk to me, don’t ask me for anything. I don’t know anything about anything this morning.”
And then one winter’s morning she doesn’t wake up. So what does Luca decide to do? Such is his phobia of becoming a fully-fledged orphan—being “a half orphan” is bad enough—he decides (using a child’s logic, of course)—that the best thing he can do is continue as normal. He gets dressed and goes to school. He feeds himself and the cat. He even bathes. At first he’s not a hundred percent certain that she is dead (although he’s pretty certain even from the very start) but when he comes home that first night and finds her still where he left her it’s pretty obvious but for the next couple of days he clings onto the hope that she might still recover from whatever has stricken her. Once, however, she begins to smell he has to resign himself to the inevitable. Which is him living on his own with the cat and taking care of himself. He knows where to find the code to her cash card and how to keep under the radar—little boys can become invisible when they set their minds to it—and that seems to solve most of his problems. Until the clean clothes start running out.
Children left to their own devices following the death of a parent has been dealt with before—Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (although the children were older) jumps to mind—but having Luca fend for himself (he doesn’t even confide in a schoolmate) does provide an interesting perspective. He’s a thoughtful and insightful wee boy although I wasn’t convinced that the scope of his knowledge could be as broad as it comes across no matter how clever he is. He’s bright but no genius. His world experiences feel a bit too wide, his vocabulary a tad too expansive and his insights a little too deep. And then he lets the side down and pees himself. A lot of what happens to Luca is believable. That his mother’s best friend, Giulia, just happens to phone up and say she’s going on vacation for a few weeks is terribly convenient but what the heck. Stranger things have happened at sea.
Manders is not the first author to have a very young child as a first-person narrator. The book most people will think of in this regard is Emma Donoghue’s Room although there are others—In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes and What I Did by Christopher Wakling (both have six-year-old narrators)—but the book I was most familiar with was The Way the Family Got Away by Michael Kimball who has two very young children as the narrators; no ages are mentioned but I would guess five and three and the action mostly takes place in the back of a car. Most recently I read Jessica Bell’s novella The Book and in my review I talked at length about the problems facing authors who choose to have very young characters take centre stage in their novels. None of these succeed completely in my opinion, not that I think I could do better. Far from it. And that perhaps is part of my problem here in that I’m almost fifty years removed from being a six-year-old boy. I really can’t remember what concepts I had a firm grasp of back then and I was a bright kid. I recently listened to some reel-to-reel tapes my dad recorded in the sixties and I have to say I was shocked to hear how childish I came across as at six and, as I’ve said, I was not a stupid child. But I clearly was still very much a child.
Fear can be a powerful motivator though and really at its core that’s what this novella is about, more than loss or grief or blame: Luca’s paralysing fear of being sent to an orphanage:
If Mama is dead, I can’t tell anyone. If I tell, they’ll take me to the orphanage.
This is terrible.
I don’t want to go.
I don’t want to be a complete orphan.
Anything else would be better.
Better to say that Mama’s left.
Or else say nothing and act like it doesn’t matter.
Better to find a way to make do. It can’t be that difficult. Better to try to survive.
Better to keep it a secret and smile.
Of course we know he won’t be able to keep it up forever although he manages longer than I expected. And then a knock comes on the door. And the book ends. This was a big problem with a number of reviewers. We don’t find out what happens to Luca. Does he get sent to an orphanage? Does he end up in foster care or even adopted? Leaving things on a cliffhanger is an okay way to end things but even a short coda set six months or a year or two later would’ve clearly been appreciated by some. In her defence Lord of the Flies just ends. Adults arrive on the island and we realise the boys are going to be rescued and some of them will probably be in therapy for years but Lord of the Flies is not real life; it’s a novel and novels have to end somewhere even though there will always be more to tell. That’s why we have sequels and Luca’s an interesting enough character to tempt an author into writing a sequel but I suspect she’ll be wise enough to leave him where she leaves him. Of what there is to the book, though, I have to say I was kept entertained. Luca’s a wee charmer and it’s impossible not to root for him. Not quite sure in what way I wanted him to succeed—surely not to get away with his subterfuge for years on end—but we Brits do have a soft spot for underdogs.
Despite my reservations there’s a lot good about this book. The boy works hard to keep his mother alive in his memories whilst struggling with… I suppose you’d call it survivor’s guilt; if only he’d made her happier none of this would’ve happened. I would’ve liked to know exactly how old Luca is supposed to be because I did get hung up on that and I wasn’t the only one. A couple of reviewers said he’s a ten-year-old—but I can find nothing to back that up—and then one still says, “I just could not accept that a ten yr. old (and I have a very bright ten yr. old grandson) would act or figure out a few of the things he did.” To my mind you need to put that to the side. He’s realistic. He doesn’t need to be real. We get the idea. In that respect the character of Luca is not a child, he’s a child-shaped vehicle for adults to inhabit for a hundred and fifty pages or so and by making him brighter and more insightful than he probably would’ve been in real life he becomes a more comfortable proxy for us.
The book is sad though—how could it not be sad? I defy anyone not to get even a little choked up when Luca celebrates his mother’s birthday—but I didn’t find it depressing like some, harrowing or jarring. Luca’s a survivor. Maybe that’s why we really don’t need to know where he ends up because we know whatever life throws at him after this he’ll survive it. Even an orphanage.
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
Marina Mander was born in Trieste in 1962 and received a degree in contemporary literature at the University of Venice. Today she lives in Milan and works with a number of magazines and newspapers including Il Piccolo. Her books include the story collection Manuale d'ipocondria fantastic (A Fantastical Manual of Hypochondria) and Catalog degli addii (A Catalogue of Farewells) illustrated with drawings by Beppe Giacobbe. The First True Lie is her first book to be translated into English. Her new Italian novel is entitled Nessundorma.