Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello

Translated by Alex Valente

Reviewed by Annabel

Can You Hear Me Elena VarvelloCan you hear me? is no ordinary psychological thriller – to pigeonhole it into that sub-genre would be to ignore large parts of this atmospheric and intense novel. Alongside the central mystery is a coming of age story and the two themes mesh together seamlessly. It is also hard to believe this novel is Italian author Elena Varvello’s debut, such is the eloquence of the writing, rendered into English by translator Alex Valente.

The story is narrated by Elia Furenti who was sixteen when the events he recounts took place in 1978. He was living with his parents on the outskirts of an Italian town in the countryside. The town is on a downturn economically as the local mill is closing. Elia’s father Ettore loses his job, there are no openings anywhere else in town and without work to anchor him, Ettore spirals into periods of depression and paranoia, disappearing off in his van for days at a time. The opening lines make us suspicious about Ettore from the start; we don’t know that he is ill at the beginning of the story:

In the August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.
He stopped the van at the side of the road, just before sunset, asked her where she was going, and told her to get in.
She accepted the lift because she knew him.
They saw him drive towards town with his lights off, then he left the road, took a steep and difficult path and made her get out, he dragged her along with him.

At the end of this short opening chapter, we’re hit with another shock:

He had been gone a long time already, but that was it – not even a year after he lost his job and that boy disappeared – that was when everything broke.

We have the two parts of the mystery. A boy went missing a year ago, we’re told he was found murdered. Then some months later Ettore gives a girl a lift. By the time we realise later that Ettore was loved, by Elia and his mother Marta, who has (not) coped with Ettore’s illness by believing it’ll get better on its own rather than seeking treatment, we want to believe that Ettore is not responsible, but have a sickening feeling that he might be. The suspense generated by this increases as the novel progresses. I read into the night, I truly couldn’t put the book down.

However, that is only half the story. Elia’s own summer story runs parallel with that of his father’s and is equally climactic in its own way.

Stuck out on the edge of the country, Elia has no friends close by. When he meets Stefano, the grandson of the petrol station attendant who has returned to the area with his mother for the summer, they form a friendship of convenience rather than shared interests. Without each other, total boredom beckons. Neither has much money, but boredom together is better than suffering on one’s own. How many of us have had summers like that? Looked after by neighbours while parents still work, and thus forced into hanging out with strangers. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn’t.

Elia and Stefano seem to hit it off, sealing things by sharing a stolen cigarette. Varvello captures the casual friendship that develops so well, it is very real and believable. One of the things they like to do together is to hike up to a waterhole and swim – it’s quite a way and they think the waterhole belongs to them; but of course, they’re not the only visitors.

The problem for Elia is that he is attracted to Stefano’s mother. She is Anna Trabuio, the woman mentioned in the first line and she tries to resist Elia’s attentions; she is no Mrs Robinson, but being starved of attention herself, doesn’t have the strength to resist forever. Compounding this, Elia discovers that his mother Marta knew Anna before and the two didn’t get on.

Elia’s story and that of the Ettore and the girl’s abduction alternate, twisting around each other as tensions mount and we finally discover what happened and the repercussions from that.

We’ve seen how Varvello generates suspense; she is also very skilful in making us care about all the characters: from Marta’s tender, careworn love and inability to recognise Ettore’s illness, to broken but unbowed Anna; from the adolescent bluster of Stefano to the growing confidence of Elia as he takes charge of his life. All are detailed alongside the tragedy of Ettore.

Can you hear me? – which is Ettore’s constant question, was tremendous, possibly the best thriller I’ll read all year and as I said before, unputdownable. More please!

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books, and was delighted to find that contemporary Italian noir is going from strength to strength.

Elena Varvello (trans. Alex Valente) can you hear me? (Two Roads, 2017). 978-1473654877, 272pp., hardback.

BUY Can You Hear Me? from the Book Depository.

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