An Ital­ian mas­ter­class

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEW - Re­view by Mal­colm Forbes

Fe­roc­ity NI­COLA LAGIOIA Europa Edi­tions, £12.99

BARI-BORN, Rome-based au­thor Ni­cola Lagioia has writ­ten three ac­claimed nov­els and a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries. One of those nov­els, Fe­roc­ity, is his first to ap­pear in English. Both a cap­ti­vat­ing fam­ily drama and an un­spar­ing de­pic­tion of so­ci­etal cor­rup­tion, it packs a punch and leaves a mark.

Lagioia’s taut and at­mo­spheric open­ing scene is a mas­ter-class in how to snare a reader. It is a hot moon­lit night in south­ern Italy. Moths whirr, a cat scav­enges, tawny owls hunt, and a snake de­vours a still-live mouse. A young woman, naked, bruised and bloody, crosses a gar­den, passes through fields, and then starts to walk down the state high­way. Soon she is caught in the glare of a set of on­com­ing head­lights.

From here Lagioia branches off and brings in char­ac­ters who are con­nected with, or af­fected by, this ill-fated woman, Clara. We meet her stu­dent sis­ter, Gioia, her on­col­o­gist brother, Rug­gero, and her fa­ther, 75-yearold ty­coon Vit­to­rio Salvem­ini, whose con­struc­tion em­pire has ren­o­vated the re­gion and el­e­vated the fam­ily. At Clara’s fu­neral, her wid­ower, Al­berto, sur­veys the gath­er­ing. “A fam­ily of crazy peo­ple,” he muses, “and the cra­zi­est one of all didn’t even show up.”

Half­way through the novel, black sheep and prodi­gal son Michele fi­nally does show up. Wrestling with per­sonal de­mons, seething with ha­tred for his fam­ily, and bat­tling grief for his dead sis­ter, he em­barks on a quest to find out what drove Clara to take her own life. Lagioia thick­ens his plot to the point of murk­i­ness by weav­ing a web of shady deals and reck­less acts, dark de­sires and dan­ger­ous af­fairs. En­e­mies emerge and mo­tives ma­te­ri­alise, and in time we view a big­ger, fuller pic­ture that re­veals not only a woman crash­ing and burn­ing but also a dis­tin­guished fam­ily com­ing apart at the seams and ex­pos­ing its rot­ten core.

Weigh­ing in at well over 400 pages, Fe­roc­ity is densely packed and in­tri­cately plot­ted. Lagioia flits back­wards and for­wards through time, and rou­tinely pans out from his main play­ers to take in the view­points and side-sto­ries of a host of bit-parters, in par­tic­u­lar

Clara’s many lovers. The ef­fects can be ex­hil­a­rat­ing and, on oc­ca­sion, dis­ori­en­tat­ing. In places the prose is over­wrought (“Free­dom was an empty procla­ma­tion, a dead an­i­mal in whose in­testines an army of lar­vae was swelling its ranks”); else­where it is over-de­tailed (“A hair lay on her cheek, look­ing like the out­line of the is­land of Malta”).

How­ever, these con­sti­tute mere blips. Lagioia’s ten­sion­laced and multi-faceted nar­ra­tive has both heft and propul­sive force. There is a grim al­lure to his up-close char­ac­ter por­traits and off-the­tourist-track lo­ca­tions. Antony Shugaar’s trans­la­tion ex­pertly con­veys Lagioia’s harsh re­al­i­ties and pock­ets of beauty – “the persis­tence of her tracks, the liv­ing im­print that the peo­ple we’ve loved leave in us to go on shap­ing us, driv­ing us, ob­sess­ing us”.

In 2015 Lagioia de­fied the odds with Fe­roc­ity by beat­ing the mighty Elena Fer­rante to win the Strega Prize, Italy’s most pres­ti­gious lit­er­ary award. For the An­glo­phone world, Lagioia is now the Ital­ian au­thor to watch.

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