Elena Varvello is an acclaimed Italian novelist, short-story writer and poet, so it is surprising that Can You Hear Me? (published in Italy as La vita felice) is her first novel to be published in English.
Winner of an English PEN Translates award, Can You Hear Me? is an absorbing psychological thriller that falls firmly into the category of ‘grip-lit’ but follows its own rules. It is less about a ‘crime’, more about the terrifying effects of untreated mental dysfunction, as well as a poignant coming-of-age tale. Set in 1978, sixteen-year-old Elia Furenti lives with his parents in an isolated house nestled between woods and a small provincial town in northern Italy. In the novel’s opening line Elia tells us: ‘The summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods’. The following pages are his attempts to recall and make sense of the desperate act of his father, Ettore, who goes off the rails after losing his job as a repairman in the local cotton mill, and his own life-changing sexual experience with an older woman.
Ettore refuses to accept that the mill is bankrupt and is convinced that there is a conspiracy at work to get rid of him alone. He writes endless letters of complaint and buys a van that they can’t afford. One night he comes into his son’s bedroom and asks him: ‘Can you hear me’? As Ettore’s strange behaviour intensifies, Elia sheds friends and becomes a loner.
I stopped going out with the other kids: maybe their fathers drank, or sometimes
beat them, or perhaps they unloaded their frustration on their children or their
wives, but they never believed in conspiracies and wrote to no one.
He meets Stefano another troubled teenager, and finds himself intoxicated by Anna, Stefano’s pale, fragile mother. Anna had grown up with Ettore and recognises the darkness he struggles against.
Can You Hear Me? might have benefitted from more descriptions of the period and landscape but Varvello excels when depicting the intensity of mental illness and the incomprehension of those closest to the sufferer. Haunted by paranoia, Ettore is convinced that he is being followed. Ettore’s wife, blinded by love, does not want to accept that her husband needs help. Elia, by contrast, is frustrated by his father’s increasingly erratic behaviour and the loss of a strong paternal figure, whom he once admired and could laugh with. The previous winter a boy had gone missing and his corpse, tied up with shoestring, was discovered at the bottom of a pit. Varvello never says it outright, she is too subtle a writer for that, but it soon becomes clear that Elia believes his father may have been the monster who killed the boy.
Elia only vocalises his fears after Ettore kidnaps a young woman, with devastating consequences for the family. Elia’s reconstruction of this abduction is interspersed with descriptions of his own sexual awakening that long hot summer before everything changed forever. Just as Ettore and his scrambled logic cannot be trusted, we are never sure if Elia’s memories are reliable. We share his distrust of Ettore - what he is really capable of - and it is this uncertainty that keeps us gripped and turning the pages:
I went in the kitchen and found him sitting down.
He turned to look at me.
‘Where did you go’? I asked.
His shirt was undone and he was drenched in sweat. He raised his hands, as if I’d threatened him and he wanted to surrender, then he fell back on the chair and burst out laughing.
We gradually realise that Ettore is suffering from untreated bipolar disorder. His mental illness is agonisingly revealed through Elia’s snapshots of memory. He witnesses his father’s frequent periods of fevered activity and sleeplessness, his arrival home late, scratched, wet and filthy, and recalls one terrifying night when his demented father drags him from his bed into the garden demanding to know: ‘Who did it’? Elia clearly fears becoming as unmoored as Ettore, and yet in the immediate aftermath of his self-destructive act, Elia still tries to protect him.
Place has a powerful pull on the mind and father and son’s shared past is represented by an isolated waterfall that they both frequent. Here, Ettore dreams of oblivion while Elia yearns for intimacy. When Elia shares the spot with Stefano, he struggles with powerful emotions and his supressed sexual desire:
Before I dived in I thought about Anna: she emerged all of a sudden from a place I thought no one could reach, inside of me. I imagined her sitting in her son’s place, wrapped in a towel, her hair dripping water. I closed my eyes and let myself fall.
In the retelling, Elia realises’the story of my father is partly my story too’, because of how Ettore’s collapse shaped his own life. After narrating a conversation between his father and the girl he’d kidnapped, at the same waterfall, Elia admits his description is pure fabrication: ‘What they said to each other, as he was in the water, that is nothing but a daydream, and it belongs to me’.
As we learn in an Afterword, Varvello’s story is deeply personal and the act of writing it a form of catharsis. It is some measure of her talent that Can You Hear Me? is rendered in such simple, accessible prose, vividly conveys the voice of a boy on the cusp of adulthood and seamlessly navigates different time periods. Varvello’s novel reminds us that, not so long ago, depression was often left untreated; victims were just expected to endure in silence and get on with it. A haunting and engrossing read – flawlessly translated by Alex Valente – Varvello proves that, however close you think you are to someone, you can never truly know them.