An insular world of sexual play and fantasy is explored with affectless and disturbing clarity in this 1997 first novel by a young Italian writer, awarded her country’s Elsa Morante Prize.
Vinci’s protagonists and victims are five children, all living in a Bologna suburb, who surreptitiously furnish and meet in an abandoned shed that they employ as a “play house.” Following orders given by the oldest of them, 15-year-old Mirko, they peruse pornographic magazines and begin experimenting with one another’s bodies, at first impersonally, attentive to Mirko’s warning that “We can’t be like other people, do the whole couple thing”: they must exist solely as a group, independent of the conventional world of their parents and schoolmates. But the introduction of sadomasochism and child pornography into this willful Eden turns their playhouse into something far more sinister, and the story segues—quite credibly—into dangerous new territory. Vinci has an unerring eye for the quixotic mixture of high energy, rebellion, self-consciousness, and ennui that brings such characters as the brooding Mirko, the younger Matteo (a gentle boy who, poignantly enough, prefers sports to their jaded games), and especially dreamy, sentient ten-year-old Martina (the focal character) vividly to life. But ultimately you don’t know what to make of this accomplished yet opaque novel. Is it an allegory of incipient fascism? (Mirko’s morning erection seems to him “a symbol of omnipotence.”) Or a muted lament for the passion (and the innocence) that lives briefly and perishes quickly (“Sunflowers always go black in September, as if burnt”)? Vinci efficiently immerses us in the book’s amoral hothouse aura—but it’s hard to care about characters who care so little for others or even themselves.
One feels there’s a more expansive, expressive story struggling to break through the rigid confines of this almost unnaturally poised and controlled one. Perhaps that will be Vinci’s next novel.