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'Nicola Lagioia’s taut and atmospheric opening scene is a master-class in how to snare a reader'

Author: Malcom Forbes
Newspaper: The Herald
Date: Oct 30 2017

BARI-born, Rome-based author Nicola Lagioia has written three acclaimed novels and a collection of short stories. One of those novels, Ferocity, is his first to appear in English. Both a captivating family drama and an unsparing depiction of societal corruption, it packs a punch and leaves a mark.

Lagioia’s taut and atmospheric opening scene is a master-class in how to snare a reader. It is a hot moonlit night in southern Italy. Moths whirr, a cat scavenges, tawny owls hunt, and a snake devours a still-live mouse. A young woman, naked, bruised and bloody, crosses a garden, passes through fields, and then starts to walk down the state highway. Soon she is caught in the glare of a set of oncoming headlights.

From here Lagioia branches off and brings in characters who are connected with, or affected by, this ill-fated woman, Clara. We meet her student sister, Gioia, her oncologist brother, Ruggero, and her father, 75-year-old tycoon Vittorio Salvemini, whose construction empire has renovated the region and elevated the family. At Clara’s funeral, her widower, Alberto, surveys the gathering. “A family of crazy people,” he muses, “and the craziest one of all didn’t even show up.”

Halfway through the novel, black sheep and prodigal son Michele finally does show up. Wrestling with personal demons, seething with hatred for his family, and battling grief for his dead sister, he embarks on a quest to find out what drove Clara to take her own life. Lagioia thickens his plot to the point of murkiness by weaving a tangled web of shady deals and reckless acts, dark desires and dangerous affairs. Enemies emerge and motives materialise, and in time we view a bigger, fuller picture, one that reveals not only a woman crashing and burning but also a distinguished family coming apart at the seams and exposing its rotten core.

Weighing in at well over 400 pages, Ferocity is densely packed and intricately plotted. Lagioia flits backwards and forwards through time, and routinely pans out from his main players to take in the viewpoints and side-stories of a host of bit-parters, in particular Clara’s many lovers. The effects can be exhilarating and, on occasion, disorientating. In places the prose is overwrought (“Freedom was an empty proclamation, a dead animal in whose intestines an army of larvae was swelling its ranks”); elsewhere it is over-detailed (“A hair lay on her cheek, looking like the outline of the island of Malta”).

However, these constitute mere blips. Lagioia’s tension-laced and multi-faceted narrative has both heft and propulsive force. There is a grim allure to his up-close character portraits and off-the-tourist-track locations. Antony Shugaar’s translation expertly conveys Lagioia’s harsh realities and pockets of beauty – “the persistence of her tracks, the living imprint that the people we’ve loved leave in us to go on shaping us, driving us, obsessing us”.

In 2015 Lagioia defied the odds with Ferocity by beating the mighty Elena Ferrante to win the Strega Prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award. For the Anglophone world, Lagioia is now the Italian author to watch.