The End by Salvatore Scibona – review
Annie Proulx hails an outstanding debut about Sicilian immigrants making lives in America
Foto - Promised land? A group of Italians wait to be processed, Ellis Island, 1908. Photograph: Lewis Wickes Hine/© Bettmann/Corbis
From the first dozen words of this debut the reader knows that this is not another dysfunctional-contemporary-American-family novel. It is instead a jackstraw tangle of dysfunctional not-yet-American families. The characters are mostly Sicilian immigrants living in Ohio in the early 20th century, their lives caught in the fly-paper of their pasts, their language a combination of the private dialects of their native villages, a laboriously correct Italian and unsure English. There is a foreign feel to the book, as though it is a not quite fluent translation – crabbed, refolded, flecked with archaic phrases and beliefs, shot through with Joycean obscurities, all of which give the reader a strong sense of standing just inside the door of the characters' shifting worlds. This interplay of intimacy between the reader and the work, the entry into the strangeness and delirium of others' thoughts, is a little reminiscent of Panos Karnezis's 2002 collection of short stories, Little Infamies.
Although we know that the abstract past does not exist except in memory, Scibona's characters cannot escape the weight of what has happened, of what they remember. The concerns of these people, who have all torn themselves away from their beginnings – why they've done so is an important question that does not necessarily have an answer – leaving but never arriving, beginning but never ending, are the concerns of all who grapple with massive change both personal and historical: genetic identity, love and its disguises, sin and error, questions of God and Being, the human condition. Again and again the characters take leave of each other as though departures must have meaningful ends. In these actions is the awful juggling act between what was and what is.
Most of the characters are familiar with physical labour, something rare in American novels. The working-class characters appear as full-bodied intimates. Work-obsessed baker Rocco LaGrassa, whose life follows something he identifies as a "swerve", is abandoned by his wife Loveypants. The expert abortionist, Mrs Marini, is haunted by the harping, carping red-headed ghost of Nico, her dead husband. She plans to train a young neighbour, Lina, to succeed her, but Lina, obedient to her parents, marries Vincenzo ("Enzo"), a bricklayer from a rural village east of Naples, a man to whom her father has sold her in order to buy land for a grape farm. As for marriage, "now all of Lina's parts would come suddenly into order, as though a rope was pulled tight".
The grape farm itself becomes a domineering character, exerting its negative force on the characters. Enzo yearns for children but Lina does not conceive. After some years, a murky rape and the subsequent birth of a son, Lina leaves Enzo and disappears. Unknowing bastard Ciccio, both compliant and headstrong, is involuntarily sticky with the resin of his chopped-up family's history. After the unfortunate Enzo is killed, Lina, hardened into a quite different person, returns. But the question of the ownership of Enzo's house and the distance between mother and teenage son is too great for anything but hostility. Ciccio too must leave.
Scibona loves language and recognises the power of using the right word. He seems better educated than most American writers, with a strong vocabulary and rich ideas that urge him to build complex sentences. Although occasionally it feels as though the author is reaching a little too hard for effect ("unlonesomed", "unlost"), he is authoritative when it comes to detail: the way the metal reinforcements on the corners of young Loveypants's trunk "hissed on the ice as she dragged it by a belt tied to its handle", the geology beneath Ciccio's feet on his way to school, bricklayer Enzo's printless fingertips worn "as blank as glass". The imagery is compelling and beautifully crafted. Before her marriage, Lina compares herself to a Sicilian peasant way of cooking poultry:
"Her life had been like the clay that she and her mother and her sister dug out of the creek bed and moulded around a turkey or a capon at Christmastime, careful to make the mould in the shape of the bird inside, like a sarcophagus; and they baked it all slowly, and took it out to cool, and painted feathers on it with whitewash – and eyes with shoe polish, and its wattle with her mother's lipstick – and waited for her father to come to the table and say that he blessed it, and the three of them, and Saint Joseph, his patron, and for him to hold the hammer and smash it while they cheered and the steam came out.
"She would meet the man-in-waiting on Saturday. And if she accepted him – she could not see why she would not accept him – then he would be the one, a month from now, for whose sake she would paint the case around herself and let him smash her."
There are many more memorable images, such as Mrs Marini's sense of being "in a place but never of it, like a pearl in a cake", or how boys eating watermelon "shot the seeds off their tongues like savages at passing dogs". To the reader's enrichment, The End is an outstanding work in all the right ways.
Annie Proulx's "Fine Just the Way It Is" is published by Fourth Estate.