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Steal You Away

by Niccolo Ammaniti

Ischiano Salo, the small-town setting of NiccolÚ Ammanitiís absorbing second novel, is clearly no place to bring up a child. Stuck between a swamp and the sea somewhere off the deadly Via Aurelia to the south of Rome, the inhabitants spend their time drinking, whoring, bullying and fantasising of escape. In winter it seems to rain constantly: in summer, the town bakes. Cruelty, hopelessness and stray dogs are at positively Dickensian levels.
Ammaniti knows, though, that such places provide richer pickings for novelists than their benighted inhabitants. The book adroitly assembles a disparate group of characters, formed and damaged by life there, who share connections with his 11 year old chief protagonist. Pietro Moroni is, even by the standards of Ischiano Salo, isolated: shuttling between his abusive father, his mute mother and his hapless older brother, his only relief is his beautiful best friend Gloria, with whom he collaborates on science projects. After seeing her one day, he is bullied into trespass by the school toughs, and it is the tragic aftermath of this which is the meat of Ammanitiís story.
Counterpointing this plot is the more comic story of Graziano, a forty-something drifter who, having scraped a living peddling drugs and playing guitar, has resolved to marry and settle down in his hometown (or, on the other hand, perhaps in Jamaica). Ammanitiís narrator has some fun at his expense: preparing for a date, Graziano dresses in ďa blend of the casual with the elegant. Early Spandau Ballet, if you get the picture.Ē
Where Pietro is scientifically inclined, he is an artist: passionate and prone to infatuation with whichever woman happens to be closest to hand. The movements of the two protagonists intersect, and through their contrasting views of the town and its inhabitants we see how brutalised youth is succeeded by apathetic, impotent adulthood.
This is a novel of the classic school, and if Ammanitiís sun is Mediterranean, he is definitely writing in Dickenís shade. The victimised young boy as the protagonist (a figure the novel shares with Ammanitiís first, IíM NOT SCARED): the squalid setting; the use of the weather; the horrible other boys; the blessed girl from the right side of the tracks; the slick management of point of view: for a twenty-first century Italian novelist, Ammaniti is heavily indebted to a nineteenth century English one.
This fast-moving novel, by turns comic and shocking, acutely observed and taut, opens up a side of latin life which does not often intrude on the Anglophone imagination. It isnít the bucolic dream of Italy peddled by Jamie Oliver or Antonio Carluccio; you wouldnít want a holiday in Ischiano Salo, but a visit in Ammanitiís company is another matter.

Review by Roly Allen.

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