Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

Swimming to Elba by Silvia AvalloneSwimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Published by Blackstone Audio on 6/14/12
Genres: Fiction
two-half-stars

Story: B-/C+
Narration: A-

 

In many ways this audiobook was a journey to a foreign land and it was through the skill of the author that I was able to set aside a certain amount of ethnocentrism and immerse myself fully in the sensibilities of the story. In setting, the listener is presented with an incredibly clear sense of Piombino, Italy with its sweltering summers, crowded public housing redolent with the odors of life, the constant noise and motion of its inhabitants and the scent of the sea and the stagnating life washed up on its shore. Life in this steel town – the Lucchini steel foundry is the primary employer but is struggling to stay afloat in a post-industrial age – seems peopled with resentful young men who can’t escape the expectations of their life and who usually, like their fathers, end up taking a job in the steelworks. In the evenings they salve their restlessness with drugs and discotheques and sometimes a bit of theft. Youth seems destined to end early and there is a pervasive sense of suffocation and lives going nowhere as the men wear themselves out working in the foundry and the women sacrifice happiness in expectation of attaining security.

As a listener who happens to be a woman, it was also a trip back to the cusp between adolescence and maturity and in journeying along with Francesca and Anna I found, for good or bad, just as much of the familiar as the unfamiliar. The core of the story is two girls transitioning to adulthood who alternate between the naïveté of youth and an all-too-knowing confidence in their bodies and there is a palpable sexual charge that runs throughout the story. The self-absorption inherent in adolescence is nicely balanced by the affection each has for the other as well as the glimpses we have of the sometimes painful family dynamics that help shape them and drive the choices they make in life.

While Anna is reaching greedily for adulthood, Francesca is desperately clinging to the affection present in her friendship with Anna and I found them to be very realistic characters and often sympathetic ones – though not always likable. Francesca and Anna want nothing more than to escape their world of limited options and had always planned to do it together but when events shatter their already unstable family lives, the chasm that opens between them seems uncrossable and the choices they make after the split may separate them forever.

In addition to Francesa and Anna’s story the listener is presented with significant glimpses into the lives of many of the other characters. Alessio, Anna’s older brother, is a heavy machinery operator at the foundry and his drug use provides an imagined escape from being trapped. Arturo and Sandra, Anna’s parents, are in conflict as Arturo loses his job at the steelworks and then disappears for days at a time running cons in an attempt to earn enough to buy his family’s respect. Francesca’s father, Enrico, is abusive and his obsession with his daughter’s rapidly maturing body is extremely disconcerting to read. Francesca’s mother, Rosa, can’t bring herself to leave Enrico – even to save her daughter – and turns to medication to dull her pain. Toss in a handful of supporting characters and there’s a lot of head-hopping as each one gets to explain their perspective, adding a lot of tell rather than show. It also means that a large chunk of the first half of the book is brick-by-brick character creation which slowed the pace significantly.

There was a lot of minute detail in each of the perspectives. Although this played a large part in creating the well-developed sense of place that ran through the story, because it was split between such a large number of characters my overall connection with the story felt diluted. This book struck me as an intricately described year-in-the-life piece and while it was enjoyable because of how adeptly the author was able to convey the atmosphere of those lives, I often bogged down in the details and the repetition of them.

Despite not being able to say that I was completely wrapped up in the book or that I loved it, I have to acknowledge that these characters seemed like very real people to me. Even if I didn’t like them (and I definitely found Francesca’s father and his controlling nature repellent) I felt immense sympathy for Anna and, truth be told, Francesca absolutely broke my heart – especially in the beginning. At one point I alternated between wanting to pull her in close and feeling a desire to shake some sense into her.

While I am usually an audioook advocate, that’s especially true with this book because a significant amount of the connection I did make with this story was due to the narration.

The Narration:

This was my first experience with Cassandra Campbell’s narration and I’m marking it down as another win in my recent streak of new-to-me narrators whose work I need to find more of. I suspect I might have been tempted to put this book down and not pick it up again if it hadn’t been in audio and that would have been a shame because there’s a lot to appreciate in the writing.

As a translated work, it made sense to me that a heavy Italian accent wasn’t employed for the characters but combine the presence of that rhythm in dialogue with the liquid cadences of Italian proper names seamlessly wrapped in the smooth progression of Ms. Campbell’s delivery and suddenly I was entangled in lattitudes and longitudes that were miles distant and years away from my own.

I found there to be an almost gentle flow to the narrative. While that provided a striking contrast to the moments of frustration expressed by the characters and especially to the angry and controlling character of Enrico, on the opposite end of the spectrum it emphasized the slower pacing in some portions of the book. Offsetting that completely was the impression I received that the narrator (in both the literary and audiobook sense of the word) was achingly sympathetic to the characters, which kindled my own sympathies and interest to a surprising degree. Francesca was already hitting an empathetic chord in me but the almost gentle treatment her story received at times was uncommonly affecting.

The characters were distinct in presentation and personality and the vocal characterizations for Anna and Francesca were a nice blend of the supremely self-centered nature of adolescence and their awakening realization to the world outside themselves; this meant I was never irritated in listening to them because it balanced out nicely. This was an excellent narration that did nothing but enhance my interest in the story.

two-half-stars

Comments

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever been disappointed in Cassandra Campbell’s narration. This sounds like a really intriguing audio, I may have to seek it out.

  2. Cassandra Campbell :

    Thanks Jen, for the lovely comment on this review that thrilled me so much. I really loved this book and the characters. So glad if that came through!! Cheers – Cassandra Campbell

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