Me and You, By Niccolo Ammaniti (Trs by Kylee Doust)

A basement packed with dynamite

Leyla Sanai
Sunday 12 February 2012 01:00
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Niccolo Ammaniti is a literary star in Italy; one of the "young cannibal" movement, who integrate elements of popular culture into their work.

His first novel, I'm not Scared, was a bestseller in Italy, where it was made into a film. His third featured unsavoury characters trying to fight their way out of poverty with crime.

Me and You is an international bestseller and is being made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci. In contrast to Ammaniti's previous novel, the protagonists here are affluent, and as in his first, a child takes centre stage.

Lorenzo, the only child of affluent parents, is a loner whose only strong emotional bonds have been with his grandmother and his mother. His mother has frantically searched for ways of helping him fit in with his peers, and a child psychiatrist diagnosed narcissistic personality disorder. At high school, where he puts on a bravado he doesn't feel as an anti-bullying device, Lorenzo realises he doesn't hate everyone, only the jerks, and he longs to be able to stop acting and make friends with some of the decent kids.

Narrated in the first person, the story starts with a scene set in 2010, when Lorenzo is an adult, and then flips back to when he was 14, and a pivotal experience which centred around a blurted lie.

Lorenzo had pretended to his mother that a girl he yearned to be friends with had invited him on a skiing trip. His mother had been overcome with happiness that Lorenzo was finally fitting in, and Lorenzo had felt unable to tell her the truth – though whether this was because of empathy for his mother or solely because he didn't want to explain his lie is an issue artfully avoided.

Lorenzo's only option was to hide for the week in a cellar. But his contented shelter was invaded by his half sister Olivia, who had problems of her own.

Ammaniti's prose is a delight. Spare and undecorated, it nevertheless manages to entertain with vivid phrases and imagery ("I'd had a growth spurt, as if they'd put fertiliser on me"). It is also potently capable of conveying the alienation of the non-conformist, and Lorenzo joins the rank of young outsiders from Holden Caulfield to James Dean's character in Rebel Without a Cause.

The ending is shockingly potent, though unanswered questions abound about the 10 years in between. A dynamite novella, it leaves the reader craving more.

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