Everyone knows I love a good apocalypse fiction, and this is a marvellous, although bleak, rendering of a world where a mystery virus has wiped out all the adults, and children die soon after they reach puberty*.
The story focusses on Anna, a pre-pubescent girl living on Sicily 4 years after the outbreak. She steals food, collects water and tries her hardest to keep her younger brother alive and safe. When he is stolen by a gang of children hell bent on sacrificing the last adult alive, Anna risks everything to get him back.
There are no holds barred in this book. Ammaniti takes childhood and twists it into the hedonistic, terrible thing it would become without the social niceties adults press onto kids. Anna thrusting her hand into her vagina to check if she has her period is something I can well imagine happening with no one to say ‘that’s not nice to do in public’. Living amongst rodents and empty food containers, stealing clothing and getting drunk on scavenged grappa are artfully portrayed – this is not graceless writing, this is a careful examination of the breakdown of polite society. There are times when you will want to look away because the rawness of the characters is heartbreakingly real.
One thing I didn’t like was the use of drugs/alcohol/chaos to blur scenes – I can’t decide whether I just don’t understand all the subtext, or whether it’s lazy writing designed to hide a lack of plot movement. She’s drunk, she’s in a crowd where she can’t see, there’s explosion and suddenly – oh look, there are Pietro and Astor and everything is ok again (for a little while). I like stuff to be shown, or even told, rather than being ‘trusted’ to fill in the gaps myself. Damn brain doesn’t work like that!
It’s a well researched novel – what foods are still ok, what medicines would last, the general degradation of buildings and reclaiming by greenery is all fairly accurate. There are tragic scenes and joyous ones in a nice mix that keeps you hooked. The ending is bleak as fuck, but remember this is post-apocalypse fiction and Ammaniti is known for his darkness. The dog is a nice touch, I love Maremmas. It’s a nice afternoon read (it’s raining and windy here, so kinda fitting) at 275-odd pages and anyone who likes realistic end-of-the-world books with no holds barred will enjoy it.
*When I’m not so shellshocked, I’ll ponder the actual possibility of this.