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Every year young Marco eagerly awaits his father's return, when he can for a few months spend precious time with him before he leaves again. Marco's father Tullio is a migrant worker forced through poverty to work in Northern France doing hard manual work. In this way he manages to earn enough to help his family have decent living. The family includes his eldest daughter Elise now at college, Marco his only son and a younger sister known only as 'la piccola' along with his wife and elderly mother. They all live in Calabria an economically depressed area of southern Italy. They also are part of the minority Arberesh community, descended from Albanian immigrants settling small villages in the mountainous regions of Calabria known as La Sila.
Calabria has always been a poor region and the Calabrian people have been unfairly looked down upon by other Italians especially in the North of Italy as being a drain on the rest of Italy. The Calabrians are stereotyped are being workshy with criminal tendencies. In turn the Arberesh people are looked down upon even by the Calabrians.
The story starts at the Christmas festival in the main village square. Here Tullio and Marco sit around the traditional village bonfire telling stories and each looking back on the last few years of their lives. Marco now on the verge of manhood is begins to understand the sacrifices his father has made for the family and Tullio worries if those sacrifices however necessary have had lasting consequences for his family. Each of them hides a secret concerning the fate of a man whose affair with Marco's older half sister Elise changed their life forever. As the evening moves on and each recounts past events through a series of flashbacks, the story slowly unfold and each of them comes to a better understanding of the other.
Carmine Abate writes beautifully; it is easy to tell from many of the passages in the book that he is an accomplished prizewinning poet. His prose has a lyrical quality, each sentence crafted in a simple style but still full of elegance and meaning. Set in an unspecified time probably the 60's or 70's, the story is a touching portrait of family life showing how the relationships of family members change with age. Underpinning the narrative is a mystery involving Marco's half sister Elisa. As each tells his side of the story the reader begins to uncover the truth about a mysterious stranger who has befriended her.
The beauty of this book lies in Abate's skill as a writer. Abate's previous novel 'Between Two Seas' describes the southern Italy of the immediate post war period and in a sense this neatly follows on from that earlier work. His description of the Arberesh community including the use of their language is fascinating. The descriptive passages are spellbinding and verge on magical realism in the way the world takes on a mystical quality through the eyes of the young Marco. The story reminded me of Cesare Pavese's 'The Moon and the Bonfires'. Pavese's book looked at the life of poor post war communities in northern Italy where young men were forced to emigrate to the America to earn any money. Similarly Abate's book set slightly later, a time Abate himself grew up in, focuses on the plight of the ordinary inhabitants of the poverty stricken south and their search for work in the by now more affluent northern Europe. Maybe the focus of the story around the large village bonfire is meant to pay homage to Pavese's earlier work. The tradition of telling of stories around the bonfire is an ancient one going back to a time before stories were even written down. I feel the setting that Abate has chosen lends the story an added sense of timelessness dealing as it does with themes such the changing relationship of father and son which are as old as storytelling itself. The realism with which the characters are portrayed and the setting also reminded me of another great Italian author Italo Calvino who in many his early books and short stories focused on the life of ordinary people in German occupied Italy.
The harshness of the village life the poverty of the communities is forcefully described but at the same time there is a sense of hope that things are slowly changing, although it might take longer than Marco would want.
A mention also has to be made of the translator Anthony Shugaar who has managed to convey the eloquence of Abate's prose in to English, not an easy task since the original is not only written in Italian but also part in the local Arberesh language.
Overall a thoroughly enjoyable book, beautifully written with a captivating cast of characters.
'The Homecoming Party' by Carmine Abate is available from Amazon.co.uk fro £5.99 at the time of writing this review.
A shorter version of this review was previously published on TheBookbag.co.uk