A review of Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Review of Swimming to Elba
by Silvia Avallone,
2013, ISBN 978-0-14-312365-1 pb. $16 US

Silvia Avallone’s Swimming to Elba is a vivid, intense novel about young people striving for fulfilment in an uncongenial environment. The story is set in 2000-2011 in Piombino, a steelmill town on the Italian coast just three miles from the island of Elba. The mill owners have been shifting production to other countries with cheap labour sources, leaving the remaining workers in a polluted wasteland.

Thirteen year old Anna Sorrentino and Francesca Morganti are lifelong friends who who live with their families in a working class apartment building on Via Stalingrado. Forty years earlier, the Communist city council decided that people in public housing needed a view, and indeed the beach is the saving grace that makes life bearable for the “children of the nobodies dripping with sweat and blood at the steel mills.” Anna and Francesca have just undergone puberty and delight in their new grown-up physical appearance and their new sensations and emotions. They enjoy cavorting on the beach with the other teenagers, and experimenting with make-up in Anna’s apartment. They dance, scantily clothed, in front of the windows, not caring that people in the neighbouring apartment buildings can see them.

Francesca worries that their friendship will wither and fade in the fall when Anna will enter the academic, university-prep high school and she the regular one. Anna reassures her that although their paths may diverge in life – (with Francesca possibly becoming Miss Italy and Anna having a profession, perhaps a labour organizer) – they will never lose each other. “We’re different,” she says, “but we’re part of one single thing… We’re sisters.” Francesca’s emotions explode as she embraces Anna.

The girls agree that their fathers are “assholes” and can’t be allowed to ruin their lives. As the novel opens, Enrico Morganti, Francesca’s father, is watching Francesca and Anna through binoculars as they play on the beach. We soon learn that he beats Francesca and his wife Rosa. Anna’s family is a somewhat better environment for a teenager, thanks to forty-three year old Sandra, the wife and mother. Sandra works outside the home and is involved in local left wing politics. Arturo Sorrentino, however, the husband and father, hasn’t divulged to his family that he was fired from the Lucchini Steelworks for stealing drums of oil, and is now involved in art smuggling. Their twenty-three year old son, Alessio, is a steelworker who spends his free time partying with his friends.

Silvia Avallone tells her story from multiple viewpoints, allowing us inside the hearts and minds of all of her main characters, most often Anna. By being non-judgmental and descriptive in presenting her characters, she allows us to share their hopes and feel their pain even while disapproving of their behaviour. Alessio, for instance, steals copper wire to sell on the black market and seems to care only about sex, cars, drugs and alcohol, but Avallone shows his sensitive side. Thinking about the pale young mothers with no make-up on, who bring their children to the chain link fence outside the steel works to see their fathers operating heavy machinery, he feels “enchanted” by them, and longs for a “pale white breast where he could lay his head.” He cares nothing for the girls he’s currently seeing, but yearns for his high school girlfriend, Elena, a doctor’s daughter. They broke up when she went to university in Pisa.

The steel mill is a huge presence in the novel, almost a living thing, and a dangerous one. “Alessio was small and alive in this vast burning organism,” Avallone writes. “At times, to withstand the boredom or the fear, you have to sit in a corner and unzip your fly.” Sexuality is an important area of freedom for anyone trapped in an alienating environment, but although the men use it as a form of escape, they are patriarchal when it comes to women, particularly budding teenagers like Anna and Francesca. Francesca’s father calls her a whore and beats her for having fun on the beach. When her injuries require medical attention, the clinic doctor turns a blind eye, staying aloof from his patients’ lives because he considers them to be “animals.” When Anna’s father returns home after a long absence in pursuit of his illegal activities, he calls her a whore for wearing mascara.

The parents never know about an incident between Francesca and Anna on one of their strolls to the grassy seacoast littered with derelict boats. Anna likes to feed the feral cats, which breed there and on the industrial sites (and symbolize the workers). Francesca tells Anna she loves her and they have a same-sex encounter. Afterwards, at home, Anna prays, “Tell me I’m normal; tell me that nothing bad happened.” Francesca, hearing her father beating her mother, thinks that what she has just done “couldn’t be all that terrible.”

This incident, closely followed by Mattia’s entrance into the story, spoil the girls’ friendship. A former schoolmate of Alessio, Mattia left Piombino to avoid the law and has been working on oil freighters in Russia. When he peeks in at Anna asleep in her bed he is attracted to this “woman-child” and she to him. Without posing the question directly, the author makes us ask ourselves: “Which is more problematic, two thirteen year olds having a lesbian experience, or a thirteen year old girl having a sexual relationship with a twenty-three year old man?

Self-induced disasters eventually sap the fathers’ power, and the young steelworkers’ late nights of partying and drugging lead to a tragedy. No longer in fear of her father’s fists, Francesca finds excuses to get out of the apartment, and begins to dress provocatively. She takes a job that is both degrading yet oddly fun and life-affirming. Meanwhile, after almost a year with Mattia, Anna decides, in the face of one of his prejudices, that he’s “just another guy”, not so special after all.

Anna’s mother, Sandra, is so sick with worry throughout the novel over Arturo’s absences and Alessio’s late nights that Anna’s affair with Mattia escapes her radar. Sandra is not perfect; she fails to help Rosa, or to follow up on her resolution to file for divorce, yet she is, nevertheless, the strongest and worthiest member of the older generation. Her very face makes Anna want to be honest and decent. In the end, it is a suggestion of Sandra’s that strikes a restorative note.

Elba, visible on a clear day like a “cookie” on the sea, represents beauty, freedom and happiness throughout the novel. Once Napoleon Bonaparte’s home in exile, it is now a playground for rich international tourists. The only one of the main characters who ever went there is Sandra, who saw nothing of the island because Arturo spent all his time indoors with his partner in crime. At the end of Avallone’s novel, two of the characters get to go to Elba.

Swimming to Elba reminded me of books by the American writer, Marge Piercy, particularly her novel, Braided Lives, and her memoir, Sleeping with Cats, which show young women growing up in working class Detroit in the 1950s. Readers will emerge from Swimming to Elba with an appreciation of the life force in everyday people. Silvia Avallone has done a superb job of creating vivid characters in a social class too much neglected in literature and in society.

About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s young adult novel, The Songcatcher and Me, is being published in 2013 by Baico Publishing of Ottawa, Canada (baico@bellnet.ca)