SOUL OF THE BORDER by Matteo Righetto


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A young woman takes up her absent father’s tobacco-smuggling business in Italian writer Righetto's first novel to be translated into English.

As the story begins, it’s late in the 19th century, and a man named Augusto periodically smuggles tobacco over the rugged, mountainous border from Italy into Austria. As his daughter Jole grows older, she begins accompanying him. Soon enough, Augusto vanishes and is presumed dead. As her family faces economic hardship without him, Jole decides to make the same journey her father regularly made. And while he faced dangers along the way, the passage is even more perilous for a young woman. Righetto’s novel abounds with naturalistic details that help create a fine sense of place—evoking both the literal path that Jole follows and the sense of a world on the cusp of something. A reference to a newly built railway is one such example; the fact that Jole and her siblings, born between 1878 and 1886, will likely be alive for the First World War is a more subtle, but no less ominous, detail. The narrative itself is a fairly straightforward journey, speckled with some mystery as to what actually happened to Augusto. The characters outside the central family don’t register nearly as deeply, however: De Menech, Jole’s contact over the border, wavers between amoral and actively malicious, while Näckler, a copper and silver smuggler who works with De Menech (and whose visceral method of smuggling is described in precise detail), is given a horrific backstory that seems to build him up for a larger role in the narrative—one that never comes.

There’s an archetypal tale of danger and family to be found in this novel, but some of the background details don’t work nearly as harmoniously.

Pub Date: June 11th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-5011-8812-1
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: Atria
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2019


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