Book: Swimming to Elba – Silvia Avallone

Thanks to Netgalley, Penguin Group USA and Viking USA for an arc to review!

I set out reading Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone expecting a completely different book than it turned out to be. What I expected was a light summer read set in Italy. Well, it was set in Italy and parts of the book take place in Italy but it’s far from what I expected.

Swimming to Elba deals with two girls, Anna and Francesca, who are best friends and live in the industrial town Piombino. They’re 13 years old and it’s the summer before they start high school. The girls look like complete opposites, Anna with dark curls and Francesca with straight blond hair, but they live their lives as if they are one and have done so ever since they were little kids. This will change once the start high school because Anna is the smart one of the two and she’ll attend a different high school than Francesca. However the girls are convinced they will remain best friends and are set on enjoying their last summer before venturing into this new life. It is this summer they have discovered the impact they and their bodies have on others so they start using their looks and newly discovered sexuality to tease boys and men around their town. Both their families are far from perfect, Francesca’s father Enrico beats his wife Rosa regularly, and does the same thing to Francesca especially because he doesn’t like his daughter showing of her body and getting involved with boys. Anna’s father works at the local steel factory but when he gets fired he starts to get involved in criminal activities and disappears from their family several times. The girls find support in each other and their friendship and always dream of getting away from their town, one of their dreams to get away is to swim to Elba, the luxurious island glistening in the sun, which they can see from their side of the beach. They also dream about getting older and finally being able to take part in the enticing adult and night life of their town, which includes parties, drugs and being able to get around on a Vespa when they turn 14.

Things take a turn for the worse however when Francesca realizes that she is in love with Anna, when she confesses her feelings, the first wedge in their friendship is created and soon after they fall out of touch completely when Anna falls in love with her brother’s friend Mattia, who is much older than she is. Both girls keep thinking about each other of and on though and both girls keep dreaming of escaping the worker’s apartments in Via Stalingrado and Piombino. Anna and Francesca soon start growing up way too fast, experiencing things they are not ready for yet. Anna by getting involved with Mattia and engaging in a sexual relationship and Francesca eventually by having to drop out of school and help out at home and by trying to follow her dreams of becoming famous and getting away, which has her ending up working in the sex industry.

Besides Anna and Francesca we also get the bleak stories of their parents, Anna’s brother Alessio and their friends and other people living in Piombino. Nobody seems to be really happy and everybody has to deal with their own problems.

The novel is written in a marvelous style, Avallone really transports you to the locations the novel takes place in with a lot of detail, while reading you can imagine every place in your head as watching a movie and in my opinion, if an author can do that in a way it doesn’t get repetitive or feel forced, they really know their craft. Even if you have never been to Italy and don’t know a single thing about the country, you will love the style of writing because it takes you to that wonderful country. If you know the country very well, you’ll be fascinated by all the things you recognize while reading; and if you only know the more glamorous parts of Italy, it will be quite a change to see this other part of the country.

I really liked the juxtaposing of Elba, the paradise where everything seems to be better to the girls from Via Stalingrado, and Piombino with its industrial bleakness. Elba is a symbol for all the dreams the girls, and probably other people in Piombino have, a whole other world, only a ferry ride away yet still so far away.

Swimming to Elba definitely leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling at certain points and while it only gets worse in that sense towards the end, the ending of the novel itself gives a bit of hope, hope that maybe it is possible to escape the life most people seem to be living in Piombino, maybe it is possible to make something of yourself and just maybe these girls will end up doing just that, maybe they’ll even do that because they experienced so many things in that one year, and grew up so fast.

To come back to the first sentence of my review, I’m glad that this novel was not what I expected it to be, I’m glad it was not just a summer read because while not an uplifting holiday read that you can read without really thinking, and while being a book that can make you uncomfortable at times, this is a novel you shouldn’t miss out on. It’s an outstanding coming of age story of two girls that are unsympathetic at times yet at other times you feel immensely sad for them and what they are going through. Moreover, the prose is simply astounding and I’ll be looking forward to reading more by Silvia Avallone.

Book: The Glimpse – Claire Merle

Thanks to Netgalley and Faber and Faber for an arc to review!

The Glimpse by Claire Merle deals with a future London that is divided into two sections, one is the Community where the “Pures” live, the people that don’t have a mental disability, the other part is the outside world, the city, where the “Crazies”, people with a gene that could lead to a mental illness live; they are the people that are considered dangerous and a risk to society. The protagonist, Ana, was considered a ‘Pure’ and she lives in the Community. However it turns out there has been made a mistake in her DNA test and she does actually carry the gene that would make her prone to a mental illness according to society. Because she is bound to me married to Jasper, a Pure boy, Ana is allowed to keep living in the Community unless she does become ill or Jasper decides not to marry her.

This is the premise of the book and how it starts, however shortly before their bounding date ceremony, Jasper is abducted by a sect like group of people and because the authorities don’t do anything about it, Ana decides to try and find him herself and sneaks out of the Community. As she makes her way in the City looking for clues that might lead her to Jasper she meets a group of people believed to be involved in the abduction. However as Ana slowly finds out, things she has believed to be true her whole life aren’t as she thinks they are.

It seems like this book has stirred up quite some controversy because of it’s theme of mental illness. I think, however, that the fact Claire Merle decided to take up this kind of theme for a dystopian novel is quite interesting and it’s a daring concept to tackle. Surely, she didn’t mean to offend any people with it and it’s just another way for a government to oppress a society and enforce their rules on people. Besides throughout the book, it’s quite obvious that Merle does not approve of a society like this (and I doubt any writer of a dystopian novel would, they are just showing us yet another way of a possible future).

It took me quite a while to get into the book and I think I never really completely felt it. Sometimes it seemed to slow and at other times it seemed like random plot developments were thrown in. There were certain passages that really engaged me, especially in the third half of the books, but it didn’t put me completely under its spell and I’m not sure I can put a finger on what it was exactly. I did like the brutal honestly some parts were written with, especially the passages in the mental institution and I think that was when I really got into the book and where I finally found what I was missing before.

I’m not really convinced by Ana, the protagonist, but I can see how others might like her but I didn’t think she was as strong as other female leads but this could obviously be explained by the fact that she has been fed lies all her life and grew up in the protected Community. In general I wasn’t really convinced by other characters in the book either, they could have been fleshed out a bit more and given a bit more detail. Another thing that didn’t really work for me, was the romance part of the book because it didn’t really feel real and it was done way too quickly in my opinion. In the end I also feel that too much value is put on the romance story instead of delving more into what’s wrong in society.

I will probably pick up the second book of this series as well to see how the story develops and hopefully we will get to know more about what is wrong with the world and an actual kind of revolution. I’m also looking forward to reading more about the glimpse the book get its title from and the Enlightenment project, both of which we didn’t really get to know a lot about in this first installment.

Lastly, props to whoever designed the cover!