Americans call it soccer, but to the rest of the world, it's football. In Italy, soccer is called calcio, a word that means "to kick."
Brigid Pasulka's first novel, the 2010 PEN/Hemingway Award-winning "A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True," took readers to Poland. Ms. Pasulka's second novel, "The Sun and Other Stars," is set in the fictional village of San Benedetto on the Italian Riviera, a sleepy, past-its-heyday resort town where there are more elderly than young.
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"Sun" is about loss and the redemptive powers of calcio. For the San Benedettans, calcio is not just a sport; it's a way of life. Soccer is so central to the book, it's practically a character.
The novel opens on the anniversary of two family tragedies. The novel's narrator, 22-year-old Etto, has lost his twin brother and mother. Brother Luca was the "star son" of the family -- a calcio player on track for Italy's Serie A league. He died in a motorcycle accident; a year later, his grief-stricken mother drowned herself in the sea.
Grief fuels Etto's dislike of calcio and avoidance of the sea. With nothing better to do, he takes his place behind the counter of his father's butcher shop but feels haunted by loss. "[I]t feels like two dark shadows [are] stalking behind me. Wherever I go, they follow. ... I can't hide from them or outrun them."
Things start to turn around for Etto when he meets Yuri Fil, a Ukrainian striker who plays on Genoa's Serie A team. Perhaps it's because Etto is so apathetic about calcio that Fil initiates nightly scrimmages on the closed-down high school soccer field where Luca is buried. Unknown to everyone else, Etto plays soccer with Fil and Zukhi, Fil's sister. The calcio sessions are therapeutic, returning Etto not only to the sport beloved by his brother and community, but to the possibility of love. The romance between Etto and Zukhi stutters but finally comes into full bloom.
Ms. Pasulka's prose has a playful, auditory quality; it captures the rhythms of spoken Italian, the rush of soccer goals scored, and the charm of a community where elderly men gather nightly to watch calcio, drink and gossip. Etto draws the reader in with a spirited, conversational style peppered with Italian slang and swear words.
References and parallels to Dante's "Inferno" abound, giving the novel additional texture. As in Dante, certain characters personify greed, lust or fraud.
As Etto begins to hope and open his heart to love, he reframes Dante's inscription above hell's gates: Abandon all hope ye who enter.
"Once you open the door to hope, my friend, it's all over. You can try all you want to slam it shut and pretend you don't care. You can try to go back to your cynical self, expecting the worst, and living your low, groveling life day by day. But once the door is open, all the possibilities of the world will come."
Etto processes his grief by drawing pictures on the ceiling of the school adjacent from Luca's grave. At first he tries to mimic Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, but eventually changes the portraits to resemble members of his family and community. He draws his father in his butcher's smock as God and himself as Adam. The space between them is a "synapse" made by grief.
Some aspects of the novel are predictable, border the saccharine, or lack complexity. Yuri's wife Tatiana is a stereotype of a superficial "trophy wife." Her infidelity with calcio star Vanni Fucci is not surprising, in part because in Dante's "Divine Comedy," there is crude thief of the same name. Etto's own recovery and romance, while satisfying, has an almost cinematic, magical, too-good-to-be-true feel to it.
"The Sun and Other Stars" is a thoughtful novel that is so original in its execution and use of language that it easily warrants a second read.
Julie Hakim Azzam teaches literature at the University of Pittsburgh (email@example.com).