Swimming to Elba: A Novel

Swimming to Elba - Silvia Avallone, Antony Shugaar I picked up Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone (trans. by Antony Shuggar) because I read somewhere that everyone in Europe was raving about it and there were only 2 holds ahead of me at the library for it (and I am an incessant hoarder of library books, which I have mentioned elsewhere, so when I see a book that people are talking about with few if any holds on it, I must immediately have it). The book is centered around two Italian girls, one blond and the other brunette, both beautiful, the summer they turn 14. Their town, Poimbino, is dominated and in turn centered around a giant but dying steel plant. The novel takes place in early 2000-2001 (the Italians’ take on 9/11 is amusing), and though well before the economic crash of 2008 and later, Poimbino is clearly on the verge of its own economic crash. Glittering just a few miles off-shore is the rich, tourist island of Elba, always visible, but always just out of reach for the novel’s sometimes gritty, usually desperate, and frequently frustrated characters. In many ways this is a classic bildungsroman, but it’s also an indictment of socialism, capitalism, class, and gender stereotypes (however much it fails at the latter). The two girls, Anna (brunette) and Francesca (blonde) are inseparable best friends. They live one floor up from each other in massive, concrete city-owned housing projects. Anna’s father is a wanna-be Godfather while Francesca’s is a great brute of a man who beats both Francesca and her mother. The novel opens with a scintillating description of the girls in their newly developed, scantily clad bodies frolicking on the beach and flirting with the older boys, all as seen through Francesca’s father’s binoculars and told through his POV. Creepy. While there are beautiful passages and cinematic scenes, that opening really sets the tone for the entire novel, but gets progressively worse and more and more depressing as the girls’ relationship crumbles and they each get caught up in the adult world of sex. Books like this are why I generally stay away from modern literary realism.The jacket describes the book as a “lightening-rod for discussion” in Europe and a strong criticism of the Leftist, Socialist ideal of the happy proletariat in Italy. I can see that, and I get what Avallone is trying to do here, if what the jacket says is true, and I applaud her for doing so. That doesn’t make me like the book any more than I do. There are a few reasons for my general dislike. The first is technical: Avallone uses the third person omniscient POV, which allows her to jump into the head of whoever she wishes, which she does quite frequently. Therein lies the problem. While most writers that I’ve read who use this narrative technique do so with ease, Avallone’s continual head-hopping is confusing, especially when she does it in the middle of a paragraph using only gender pronouns, when the scene includes several members of that gender whose head she’s already been in and could be in again. I frequently wasn’t sure whose head I was in at a given moment, which continually forced me out of the narrative, instead of keeping me locked in an otherwise engrossingly real world.The second issue I had with the novel was its treatment and view of women. That the opening description of the girls is given through the highly sexualized gaze of one of their fathers is creepy and gut-tumbling enough, but the book is drenched with more and more of it. All of the men in the book are possessive, nearly misogynistic assholes who see women (or rather 13 and 14 year old girls) as nothing more than a good or bad fuck at best, and inhuman house slaves at worst. The women frequently seem to see themselves in these terms as well, and the young ones do what they can as soon as they get tits to look like a good fuck so they can get married to one of the charming assholes from the steel plant and become a house slave later on.There is so little hope in this book, and what bright spot there is is imperiled half-way through. I don’t doubt that this may be what life in a small costal city dominated by a dying industry in Italy looks like; her depiction of life there was so thorough it began to bleed into my own view of Seattle and for that I hate the book a little bit. But in the same way I get what it’s like to look at something shining and shimmering that is close enough to touch but is always just out of reach. I think anyone who reads this book would (unless they were reading it on the white beach of Elba), and for that level of realism, that level of detail that can suck you right in and make you part of that world, I give the book and its author my respect. Final verdict: read at your own risk.