I’m Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

Synopsis from Amazon.com:

I’m Not Scared by Niccolo AmmanitiThe hottest summer of the twentieth century. A tiny community of five houses in the middle of rural Italy. When the adults are sheltering indoors, six children venture out on their bikes across the scorched, deserted countryside. While exploring a dilapidated and uninhabited farmhouse, nine-year-old Michele Amitrano discovers a secret so momentous, so terrible, that he dare not tell anyone about it. To come to terms with what he has found, Michele has to draw strength from his own sense of humanity. The reader witnesses a dual story: the one that is seen through Michele’s eyes, and the tragedy involving the adults of this isolated hamlet. In this unforgiving landscape, dominated by the contrast between dazzling sunlight and the blackness of night, Ammaniti skillfully blends comedy, the world of children and their language, the strength of friendship, and the drama of betrayal. The result is an immensely lyrical and deftly narrated novel, a compelling portrait of losing one’s innocence and a powerful reflection on the complexities and compromises inherent in growing up. I’m Not Scared is the winnter of the 2001 Viareggio-Repaci Prize for Fiction and has already been sold in twenty languages.

I’m Not Scared takes place in 1978 during a recordbreaking heatwave in Italy. Michele and his friends while away the hours outside, playing games and taunting each other; the village children are free to get into more mischief as the adults are unable to tolerate the heat and prefer to stay indoors. One day, in an attempt to navigate the cruel politics of childhood, Michele is dared to enter a ramshackle, dilapidated house; naturally, refusal is not an option. As his friends wait outside, Michele explores the house and finds a boy trapped in a hole. Michele does not tell his friends of his discovery and vows to keep his silence as well as stay away from the creepy house. His curiosity gets the better of him, however, and he returns to the boy, determined to figure out how and why the boy came to be in the hole. Unfortunately, the boy won’t tell Michele his name and appears to be under the impression that he is already dead. Despite the extreme heat and the difficulty of the journey (the house is located up in the hills, a monumental journey for a nine-year-old), Michele visits the boy repeatedly; he begins to feel a persistent foreboding that the adults in his life are trying to hide something. His suspicions are confirmed when he hears the adults – his parents, his friends’ parents, and a mysterious, old man from Rome – arguing one night; the source of the ruckus is a news segment on television, wherein a beautiful, wealthy woman pleads for her son, Filippo, to be returned safely by the men who had kidnapped him.

Not much else can be revealed about I’m Not Scared without completely detailing the plot. However, that may give the impression that the novel is more intricate than it is; though there are quite a few twists and turns, they progress exactly as expected, which is what makes this read disappointing.

The protagonist is a pretty good creation, although not without flaws. There are a few tender moments between Michele and his younger sister, Maria, which show off Mr. Ammaniti’s skill at creating realistic, complex characters. Michele’s struggle between his conscience and loyalty is well-told, although he hardly seems like a child by the end of the novel. In addition, his voice is not consistent; some passages in the novel imply that he is looking back and recounting a tale from memory, but the ending suggests otherwise.

The author also excels at setting a great atmosphere, although sadly, the momentum of several chapters are ruined by weak climaxes. Initially, the village of Acqua Traverse feels like a sleepy, Mediterranean town, reflecting the lethargy and oppressiveness that Michele feels while trying to find something to pass the time. As the novel progresses, however, the novel has more of a gothic, claustrophobic atmosphere, echoing Michele’s increasing anxiety.

All things considered, the novel does not quite succeed in its intent. Its themes have been dealt with more skillfully and effectively in other works, like Stephen King’s The Body. In the end, reading I’m Not Scared is a bit like dancing to no music. All the above elements add up to an average, not great, novel.

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