I’ll Steal You Away

For 350 pages, ill-steal-you-awayI loved the Italian writer Niccolò Ammaniti’s I’ll Steal You Away. The last 50 were a punch to the solar plexus, catching me off guard, but they may make the book that much more memorable.

The majority of Ammaniti’s book plays out as if one of those quirky Italian village films–say Fellini’s Amarcord or perhaps Cinema Paradiso–has been brought forward into the contemporary era. It’s set in little Ischiano Scalo, a country hamlet somewhere on the northwestern part of the Italian peninsula between Rome and Genoa.

Ammaniti weaves together the tales of three central characters. Pietro Moroni, the eleven-year-old son of an alcoholic shepherd, is likable, smart, but scrawny and hopelessly lost in his own imagination. His saving grace is his friendship with Gloria, a wealthy, popular, and beautiful tomboy with whom he is hopelessly in love. Graziano Biglia is an aging lothario. The village playboy, he has been on the road working as a gypsy flamenco musician and seducer of women, but now longs to return home and open a jeans shop (at least sometimes that is his goal). Flora Palmieri is a teacher at Pietro’s school. She’s painfully quiet, secretly caring for her disabled mother and harassed by the same school bullies that terrorize little Pietro. Beyond these three, Ammaniti fleshes out a couple of dozen other characters, often giving a supporting player center stage for an unforgettable turn.

I’ll Steal You Away‘s themes are yearning, self delusion, and small, often comical acts of courage, desperation, and redemption. But underlying the humorous failures and successes of the characters are truly dark streaks–utter selfishness, psychotic behaviors, misogyny, professional misconduct, bad impulse control, and more–that are a rot in Ischiano Scalo’s quirky heart. In the end, this rot eats through the veneer of quirkiness, erupting into an unforgettable finish.

In retrospect, foreshadowing of a dark finish was always there, but I was surprised by just how events turned in the book’s final chapters. I won’t give it away, but Ammaniti finishes with a note that may indicate a glimmer of hope for redemption or may just hint at the repetition of mistakes through future generations.

The translation from the Italian, by Jonathan Hunt, feels more English than American, but is mostly successful. Full of lovely passages worthy of reading aloud, complex characters whose behaviors will produce vigorous debate, and a rich understanding of both the beauty and sadness of life in a small town, this is a book that I can highly recommend to book groups. No matter how you feel about its events, you’ll find it hard to deny that Ammaniti is a tour-de-force storyteller.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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