book review: Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello

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CAN YOU HEAR ME? by Elena Varvello
★★★☆☆
Quercus, June 2018

 

Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello was originally published in Italian in 2016 under the title La vita felice (The Happy Life), and was recently translated into English by Alex Valente. It’s part thriller, part coming of age novel set in Northern Italy in 1978 and follows a sixteen-year-old boy Elia Furenti, whose father is suffering a mental breakdown after being laid off his job.

I’m struggling to get my thoughts together on this book, and I think it’s because it felt more like a first draft than a finished novel to me, and it’s hard to critique something with such abundant potential. It’s gripping and eerie and the setting of this small Northern Italian town is brilliantly realized, and the examination of mental health at a time when the vocabulary and resources for Elia’s father’s breakdown weren’t readily available was handled very well.

Interestingly, most of this book’s tension came from a subplot whose climax is spelled out to us from the very beginning. Can You Hear Me? opens with Elia telling the reader that his father kidnaps a girl and drives her into the woods – and then in a series of chapters scattered through Elia’s own narrative, he speculates on what exactly happened in his father’s van, what the girl was thinking and feeling in those moments. There isn’t much of a mystery here, but these chapters are filled with such a sense of foreboding that I found this technique – stating the resolution and then backtracking to hypothesize on the details – quite effective.

Where this book fell short for me was the coming of age element, which was just so paint-by-numbers. Elia meets a boy his age, Stefano, and is drawn to Stefano’s young mother, Anna, who, according to this book’s summary, ‘propels Elia to the edge of adulthood’. I mean, we can probably all fill in the blanks from there.

There’s also an undeniable sense of detachment from all of these characters, who all speak in abstract, fragmented sentences (this is where I’m wondering if I should have opted for the Italian text instead of the translation) and walk around all in varying states of apathy. Elia’s teenage ennui just felt so generic to me – it was like Varvello took a handful of bildungsroman protagonists and put them in a blender to achieve peak indifference but then forgot to imbue her creation with any sort of personality of his own. And then multiply this vacuousness by ten and you get Anna.

Varvello says in an afterward that Elia’s father was loosely based on her own father, and this shows in how he is clearly the most intriguing figure in this novel. And while her decision to tell his story from the point of view of his teenage son clearly came from her own personal history, Elia’s own narrative just never came to life in a satisfying way. This novel just felt too short and fragmented to pack a real emotional punch, and I think it could have benefited from fleshing out the majority of these characters. But I did race through this and find it sufficiently tense and engrossing.

Thank you to Netgalley, Quercus, and Elena Varvello for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

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