A grandfather has to look after his four-year-old grandson for a few days — with hilarious consequences! So the sell-line for the YouTube version of Domenico Starnone’s Trick (trans Jhumpa Lahiri, Europa, £11.99) might run: small child hurling granddad’s paints and pencils everywhere; granddad incapable of using any household appliance unless shown how by small child; granddad locked out on the balcony in pouring rain while small child is trapped inside.
But behind all this fun, lurks something darker. Daniele Mallarico, a famous illustrator in his seventies, is babysitting for his daughter so that she and her husband can go to an academic conference. In fact, their marriage is in trouble and they want to “evade the eyes and ears of their child and fight hard”. Daniele is reluctant to help: he has just taken on a commission to illustrate a book and he isn’t especially keen on his spoilt grandson.
These strained relationships already make this engrossing, but then there is something darker still. Daniele is illustrating a late Henry James ghost story, The Jolly Corner, about a man returning to New York after 33 years away. He believes his old family home is haunted by the ghost of the man he would have been had he never left.
The Naples apartment Daniele is staying in is where he grew up before he left for Milan. Ghosts from his past seem to stand around in the dark. His illustration work goes badly and his four-year-old grandson seems to be more competent than he.
Starnone packs a huge amount into a small compass, as he did in his last novel, Ties, a complex dissection of a 50-year marriage achieved in 150 pages. Starnone is himself originally from Naples, though now, like Daniele, in his mid-seventies he doesn’t live there. He lives in Rome with his wife Anita Raja, the Italian-German translator recently identified as Elena Ferrante. For a while Starnone was suspected of being the best-selling author. With Trick, he shows yet again that he is a much more literarily sophisticated writer than that.