Can You Hear Me by Elena Varvello #EU27Project #WITMonth

How nice to find a book which fits in perfectly with two reading challenges! A contemporary entry for Women in Translation Month and for Italy in #EU27Project.

Elena Varvello is an Italian author from Turin and this is her first novel to be translated into English by Alex Valente. It has been described as a coming of age story and a thriller, but it is far more of the first, although it does have its suspenseful moments. It is also the story of the fissures tearing apart a family (or even two families) and a description of an individual mental breakdown and its effect on others.

The narrator is sixteen-year-old Elia Furenti, who lives with his mother and father on the outskirts of a small town in northern Italy, in a valley with a river, surrounded by forests. Despite its seemingly idyllic location, the town has fallen on hard times. The local factory has closed down and his father has lost his job. His father could be humorous and lively, but also a bit odd, yet the relationship between his parents has always been very loving. Yet after the closure of the factory, his father’s eccentricities have taken a turn for the worse. He seems to think there is a conspiracy against him and disappears for hours at a time. When a local boy goes missing, Elia can’t help but feel his father is somehow involved. And there is worse to follow…

If I have made this sound like a thriller, I am misleading you. Yes, there is a sense of foreboding and ‘what will happen next’. Especially in that part of the book which alternates chapters between Elia’s experience – how he befriends a boy his own age Stefano and his mother Anna, who have also been let down by a man – and his father’s attempt at kidnapping the girl who minds their neighbour’s daughter. (I am not giving away anything, as the author baldly states it in the very first sentence.)

But overall, it is far more about the unspoken, about all the things that crack open a facade and leave people broken, even though they pretend to be resilient. It is about people hiding the truth even from themselves. It is clear that Elia’s father suffers from some form of schizophrenia and/or paranoia, but everyone refuses to acknowledge it or seek help. This might seem infuriatingly obvious to readers, but from personal experience of friends with schizophrenia, I have seen families denying the fact for years, even decades.

Valley around Turin. From Tripsavvy.

With its ability to capture the tormented adolescent soul, it reminded me of Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but this is far less idyllic and nostalgic. The tense, moody atmosphere, conveyed not through purple prose, but through a very restrained, economical style, is more reminiscent of Alberto Moravia. There are also hints of that author’s disenchantment with human nature, modern life and that elusive myth of finding happiness.

The book cover of Can You Hear Me captures that one moment of unalloyed happiness in the whole story. Yet even that is tinged by the discovery of some squashed beer cans in his one place of freedom and happiness. The idyllic valley becomes claustrophobic and Elia can’t wait to grow and move away… to another valley, another river, another forest just like the one he can’t quite leave behind.

19 thoughts on “Can You Hear Me by Elena Varvello #EU27Project #WITMonth”

  1. My latest read totally embraced that theme of denial, it was like the second mystery, next to that of the unsolved murder in Maryse Condé’s excellent The Story of the Cannibal Woman. It’s a fascinating one to unravel and so prevalent in our society, not just from ourselves but as this book suggests, others also refusing to “see”.

    1. It’s not touristy Italy, with delicious meals and espresso at the local coffee shop etc. It’s that forbidding landscape in the north-western corner of Italy, bordering France, where there are small towns lost in the forest.

  2. Those stories of families coming apart at the seams can be eloquent, Marina Sofia. And I like your description of it as a coming-of-age story with some suspense. I understand just what you mean, and it sounds as though Varvello does that effectively.

    1. It reminded me somewhat of Celeste Ng’s Things I Never Told You – which was also far more about a family and community issues rather than a crime.

  3. I’m very tempted by this! It sounds reminiscent of Dolores Redondo, at least in terms of setting in river/forest country and how that can be oppressive as well as beautiful.

  4. I like the sound of this and I’ve never hear of her. Thanks. (I don’t know why but it makes me think of Norwegian Wood.)

  5. I’ve heard a few good things about this and your review confirms what I thought – despite the cover marketing it as as thriller, there’s a lot more to it. Definitely one I’d like to read.

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.