Sunday, October 31, 2010

Going Home Again: The Homecoming Party

Carmine Abate’s The Homecoming Party (translated by Antony Shugaar from the Italian original, La festa del ritorno) is an intriguingly curious and satisfying short novel that blends coming-of-age motifs with family and cultural rituals, and a mysterious Other. It’s a quietly eerie book about a boy, Marco, growing up in a Arbëresh town in southern Italy. Marco’s father works in France, and we learn from the start that something has made Marco’s older half-sister, Elisa, “increasingly unsettled.”

I won’t provide more plot, geographical, or cultural detail since there’s no sense repeating what other bloggers (see below) have already covered. Besides, what struck me most about the book is Abate’s use of religious and maturation rites: the book opens with a Christmas bonfire at the steps of a church and Marco is soon to drink his first beer with his father, who has returned home for vacation. Marco’s father also teaches him to shoot, and yes, Abate follows Chekhov’s guideline on the appearance of guns in drama. (Oddly, the use of the Christian calendar reminded me a bit of Doctor Zhivago, too, where Pasternak mentions many church holidays.)

Even more interesting is Marco’s recovery from illness later in the book. It feels like a symbolic rebirth, particularly when his grandmother takes him to the beach to recovery; she follows doctor’s orders by giving Marco deep sand baths. “Now I have my whole body in the grave,” yells Marco. Marco also learns to swim – another step in growing up and learning to survive – at the beach, going against doctor’s orders not to swim.

Marco’s forbidden swimming lessons are offered by a strange man whom Marco recognizes: the man has already saved Marco’s family dog after an encounter with a wild boar, and the man knows Marco’s sister. The man is a catalyst in the story, appearing at key moments for Marco and representing something Other, something adult that creeps into Marco’s life. The reader learns little about him, though his influence on Marco and his family is profound. The dog, Spertina, also plays a large role in The Homecoming Party, both as a companion for Marco and, as I read the book, a symbol of the shortness of childhood. I don’t mean to sound morbid but I think part of the power of childhood pets is that they teach us about mortality.

Another aspect of adulthood is work, which draws men to become migrant laborers, which makes for difficult family lives and many homecomings. As a friend of Marco’s father says, “The problem with emigrating is that once you leave, you can’t just come back home. You can’t do it. You get used to a job with all the various sacraments that down here you couldn’t even dream of.” The sacraments and traditions that run through The Homecoming Party bind people together, even when they’re furthest apart. I enjoyed watching Abate incorporate related ancient storytelling motifs – purity, family dynamics, coming of age, fears, and even the wild boar – to create a lovely, slightly spooky, and fresh short novel about the emotional and physical perils of approaching adulthood.

Disclosure: Amy of The Black Sheep Dances passed along her review copy of The Homecoming Party. Thanks to Europa Editions, whose booths I’ve enjoyed visiting at Book Expo America to discuss translation, for sending it to her!

Amy’s review of The Homecoming Party is here. Mary Whipple of Seeing the World Through Books wrote about the book here. Three Percent's review, by Grant Barber, is here. Boyd Tonkin's take, on The Independent, is here.

Up next: Extraordinary Renditions by Andrew Ervin, another hand-me-down from Amy (and Coffee House Press) that I'm enjoying.

P.S. My review of Martin Cruz Smith’s Three Stations, which I wrote for The Pennsylvania Gazette, my university’s alumni magazine, is online here. I’m especially excited because this is my first review for a print publication!

Image credit: Richard Lydekker, from Royal Natural History Volume 2, via user Shyamal and Wikipedia.

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