Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

swimming to elbaAs I’ve mentioned before, I don’t often read books in translation. I’m kind of suspicious of them. Like The Dinner, Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone should put those suspicions to rest. It makes sense really, only the best books in a foreign language are going to be translated into English. Like The Dinner, Swimming to Elba was one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Having said that, I should also warn you that Swimming to Elba will not be to everyone’s taste. It is edgy, gritty and sexually charged. It is tragic and heartbreaking. In spite of this, I was unable to put it down.

The story focuses on two teenage best friends growing up in a working class factory settlement on the coast of Italy. They are at an age when they are discovering the power their bodies can have on members of the opposite sex. This power does not go unnoticed by Francesca’s father, who spends his days peering at them through his binoculars in what can only be described as a predatory way. Over the course of the novel the girls make different choices and drift away from one another.

Swimming to Elba has been described as both graphic and defiant, characterizations that I agree with. The novel is suffused with a feeling of discomfort surrounding the girls’ sexuality. Most of this surrounds their young age and therefore innocence, which is contrasted with their knowledge that it is their looks that will bring them escape from the drudgery of daily life. They willingly and deliberately put themselves on display and yet, there is still something very predatory about them boys and men watching them.

The writing style of Swimming to Elba is exquisite. First time novelist Avallone slips back and forth from one perspective to another almost seamlessly. Her changes in perspective flow into one another the way one wave melds into the next. Without Avallone’s brilliant writing, Swimming to Elba may have been filed away as just another coming of age story.

Who would like this book? This book is not going to be to everyone’s taste and is certainly not for the faint of heart. There is no doubt that Avallone is pushing the boundaries and taking you to a place that is uncomfortable. There is overt sexuality, abuse, drug use, crime and death. But for all of that, it is not a depressing story, though perhaps it should be. It gives a straight up view of working class life in Italy and for that it is an insightful and important work. I have a hard time finding another book to compare it to, though Lullabies for Little Criminals may do the trick. Both are edgy and expose a side of the world that is not always pleasant but is nonetheless true.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

beatiful-ruinsThere is a certain someone* over at HarperCollinsCA who spends an awful lot of his time raving about Jess Walter. And because of that certain someone, a couple of years ago I gave The Financial Lives of Poets a try. I liked it ok, but wasn’t blown away by it. Just not my cup of tea.

Then this past June Walter published Beautiful Ruins and got a LOT of great press. I was intrigued to say the least. Finally, after many months of waiting, I have read it. I must say it is a pretty good book and at times even masterful. Walter is undoubtedly at the top of his game right now, which is good for him because his latest, We Live in Watera collection of short stories, has just been released.

I have often heard Beautiful Ruins described as a story about Hollywood’s golden age and the filming of Cleopatra in Italy in the 1960’s. That, however, is only half (or even just a third) of the story. It is also story of an aging Hollywood producer and his idealistic assistant, a washed up actress, an Italian searching for the washed up actress and that actress’s son. I guess what I’m trying to say is that in many ways Beautiful Ruins is epic in scope. It is a story about dreamers searching for truth and love that spans 50 years. Though the portions of the story dealing with the inner workings of Hollywood are fascinating, they serve as merely a backdrop for what Walters is trying to achieve.

In spite of the grand tableau presented by Walter, I found the writing to be a little bit uneven. There were some portions that were absolutely unbelievable. These tended to be the portions where Walter was dealing with grand themes. Particularly near the end of the story Walter waxes poetic without sounding trite.

But aren’t all quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos – we know what’s out there. It’s what isn’t that truly compels us …true quests are not measured in time or distance anyway, so much as hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of a serendipitous savant – sail for Asia and stumble on America – and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.

However, I felt that the prose was weaker when Walter was setting up the canvas upon which to paint his epic. At times the story lagged. This does not take away from the overall effect of the novel. It certain deserves the accolades it has received and I expect that whatever Walter produces next will be breathtaking. He has certainly honed his craft over time.

Who would like this book? The easy answer is lovers of Hollywood. Hollywood past and present is a constant in the novel. But if you are looking for a light, gossipy read this is not it. As I have mentioned Walter deals with grand themes. This elevates his tale to the level of serious fiction. Above all, I think Beautiful Ruins is a hopeful and inspirational novel.

*Yeah, that certain someone is Cory. Go figure.