When I first mentioned I bought this book at a used book sale I said something like “Italy? Mafia? What’s not to love?” which I followed up with a post about how I’m NOT in the mafia nor do I admire criminal organizations. I wish I could say “what’s not to love?” about the book, but it didn’t blow me away by any means. It was entertaining, and there were definitely things I enjoyed about it, but it just generally was mediocre. Now that I’ve given it that ringing endorsement, if you care to keep reading I will tell you why.
The story takes place in Naples and centers on a police officer, Aurelio Zen, recently transferred from a posting in northern Italy. We follow Zen through his professional and private endeavors, which involve all sorts of interesting characters from mafia members to local prostitutes and taxi drivers. The story itself really wasn’t the most interesting part of the book; I found the writing a bit flowery and sometimes just odd, and while the ending wraps up all the disparate storylines, it read to me like a big explanation that wouldn’t have been entirely necessary had some of the plot elements been more adequately woven in throughout the book.
What was great about the book, though, was how it captured life in Naples and so much of Neapolitan and otherwise generally Italian culture. I’m three-quarters Italian, and two of those three quarters are from Naples or the surrounding area. The little things throughout the book that point to Neapolitan culture—like wearing a horn-shaped amulet around your neck to ward off the evil eye—were my favorite parts. My grandmother actually gave my oldest daughter such a piece of jewelry (previously was my great grandmother’s, if I’m not mistaken) just for that purpose when she was a baby; I have it saved for her until she gets older! Having studied Italian, I also really enjoyed the frequent use of the language throughout, although it was a little difficult for me since much of it was in the Neapolitan dialect rather than formal Italian (which I haven’t studied at all in the last ten years…).
The book also captures some of the more unfortunate, or unsavory, aspects of Italian culture, including animosity toward (particularly Albanian) immigrants and racially charged disdain for anyone from further south on the peninsula. In the book, for example, Zen’s Venetian mother complains that it’s bad enough she lives with the backwards people of Rome, but now her son lives with those “neri” in Naples! It reminded me of the blatant racism I witnessed among Florentines when I studied in Italy in college, and also of how my Neapolitan and Calabrian family viewed Sicilians.
In sum, I’m glad I read the book. Reading about the Italian language and culture was most of my motivation in purchasing the book to begin with, and in that regard it didn’t disappoint. That said, it wasn’t anything super special and I won’t be reading any of the author’s other, similar books. 2.5 stars.