She’s not scared

Thomas Jones

The novel that made Niccolò Ammaniti internationally famous, his fourth, Io non ho paura (2001, translated into English by Jonathan Hunt as I’m Not Scared), is set in the long hot summer of 1978, in an isolated hamlet surrounded by cornfields in an unspecified part of southern Italy. The narrator, nine-year-old Michele Amitrano, is quick-witted, observant, brave and good – everything the child hero of a storybook ought to be – but he doesn’t think of himself as any of those things, so is able to describe the monstrous events of his childhood in an unassuming sort of way. Michele is remembering what happened as an adult, twenty years on, but this level of ironic distancing makes less difference to the overall effect of the novel than the disconnect between the simple story that Michele thinks he’s telling and the more intricate one we can’t help reading through it. The nine-year-old’s voice is captured in part by Ammaniti’s use of tenses: Io non ho paura is narrated in the perfect (passato prossimo) and imperfect tenses, rather than the preterite (passato remoto) of conventional fiction.

The six children who live in Acqua Traverse’s five houses aren’t exactly friends – on the contrary, there’s a lot of animosity between them – but they play together every day, outside in the punishing heat, because there’s no one else to play with. The youngest is Michele’s little sister, Maria, who’s five; the oldest, Antonio Natale, known as il Teschio (the Skull), is 12. As the novel opens, the children are racing up a hill through a field of wheat. Everything has to be a race because il Teschio says so, though most of the others would rather it wasn’t. There’s never a prize for the winner, but the loser has to pay a forfeit. Maria falls and twists her ankle; Michele hesitates, but goes back to help her. The brother and sister are the last to reach the summit, where they find that the others have impaled a live chicken, stolen from a farm earlier in the day, as a flag of conquest.

Maria is exempt from the forfeit because she’s so young, and Michele persuades the others that he should be spared, too, because he wouldn’t have lost if he hadn’t gone back to help his sister. So the punishment falls on 11-year-old Barbara, the only girl among the older children. The day before, il Teschio had made her unbutton her shirt and show the boys her chest. Now he tells her to drop her trousers. Michele heroically – though he doesn’t see it as heroism – steps up to pay a forfeit in her place. There’s an abandoned, tumbledown farmhouse hidden in a dip over the brow of the hill. Il Teschio decides that Michele has to climb up to the first floor, make his way through the collapsing house, clamber out of a window and down a tree on the far side. He nearly manages it – the description lasts several tense pages – but then, trusting his weight to a dead branch, he falls to the ground on his back. Miraculously, he is unharmed: he has landed on a mattress. And beneath the mattress there is a sheet of green corrugated plastic. And beneath the sheet of corrugated plastic there is a pit in the ground. And in the pit there is something awful.

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