BOOK REVIEW / Vittorio goes sour among the tomatoes: 'In a Glass House' - Nino Ricci: Sinclair Stevenson, 14.99 pounds

THIS is the second part in Nino Ricci's trilogy of Italian immigrant life in Canada. The narrator and central character, Vittorio Innocente, traces his life onwards from the age of seven; his mother has just died in childbirth, and he arrives to join his morbid father on a tomato farm in Ontario. Inside the farm's glass houses the crop ripens year by year, but for Vittorio, exposed as he is both before his violent family, and by them, each tiny step in growing up is an agony. One might expect Ricci to imbue this novel with the force of a peasant ballad, but In A Glass House is a tale of spiritual dispossession so complete that nothing like a song emerges from it.

Ricci describes the Italians who settle in Ontario as creating a profoundly limited social world for themselves, prejudiced against practically everybody, from Lebanese and Mexican labourers, or dumb Anglos with their funereal supper parties, to the newer immigrants from home: 'backward, thickheaded' peasants arriving from the wrong valleys.

In this atmosphere Vittorio lives a life which is shrunk tight around a competitive axis of belonging and not belonging: 'I felt a kind of rage at my exclusion, at his power to wound me when I wanted to think of myself as somehow his better,' he says of a mistrusted friend. When his victimised half-sister becomes glancingly real to him, he loses her at once: 'I had a sudden awareness of her in her unknownness, heard her footsteps behind me like my own shadow suddenly taken solid shape and become a stranger to me.'

Nor does he ever feel truly close to his father; their final attempt at communication is via a set of letters which demonstrate more than anything that they have no written language in common. Vittorio is even divided from himself, describing repeatedly, 'a hollowness at the centre of me'; a 'sourness in me'; how, 'there was nothing inside me that was true, not even the silent hate I bore'.

In A Glass House is often very poorly punctuated, with numerous sentences left drooping across commas: 'I was eighteen, had never dated a girl, made love to one.' These cumbersome refinements almost enhance the mood being created, but the mood is draining.

Though Vittorio is only seven at the start of the book, every wound that he explores from his childhood is filtered through an adult sensibility. At one high point he remarks: 'Somehow I'd missed the simplest things, the simplest possibilities, that we might somehow have shared our lives, been human, that it would have cost us so little to be simply ourselves.'

The reader wishes also, strongly, that Vittorio could simply be himself; however, the depressive recollections never reach the point where the character being described coincides with the more sophisticated describing voice. Though we may feel sympathy for someone so profoundly unfulfilled, Vittorio leaves a lugubrious impression that dominates the novel. A third instalment with no resolution might be just too much to bear.

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