De Luca lovingly, even rapturously, explores familiar territory with bittersweet romanticism.
The unnamed narrator is 16, smack in the middle of adolescence and spending the summer with his uncle on an island off the Neapolitan coast in the 1950s. His primary adult mentor, however, is Nicola, who fishes the uncle’s boat and goes about his daily tasks with taciturn placidity. The narrator develops a strong interest in, almost an obsession with, Italy’s role in World War II, and feels the adults in his family have some explaining to do. Meanwhile, a girl enters his life, in this case Caia, an orphan of Yugoslav descent now in boarding school in Switzerland and visiting a friend for the summer. Despite Nicola’s cautions, the narrator becomes smitten, even when he finds out she’s Jewish—in fact, in his eyes that increases both her exoticism and her appeal. As the summer progresses, the narrator and Caia develop a relationship, warm but nonsexual. While at first she’s sensitive about her heritage, eventually she allows him to pronounce her name “Chaiele,” with a decidedly Hebrew inflection. She also acknowledges the protective role he plays in her life by calling him Tateh, the name she had formerly used for her father. The narrator’s cousin Daniele, a few years older, is another role model for the narrator, especially when he gets in a brawl that comes about when some German tourists visiting the island start singing an anthem of the SS. The epiphany the narrator gets from this incident leads him to his own act of protest and destruction.
De Luca writes like a dream, passionately but not effusively, and he treats his characters with both respect and affection.