Australian novelist Armanno makes his US debut with a tale of lost love that haunts the protagonist for the rest of his life.
Fifteen-year old Salvatore “Sam” Capistrano is smitten with Gabriella Zazò the day (June 13, 1975) she moves into the house next door to his in suburban Brisbane. Gabriella is wild, beautiful, brilliant, and willing to trade kisses for sweets; Sam falls wholeheartedly and unreservedly under her spell. The chaste, strangely mature relationship between these two Sicilian teenagers blossoms—until Gabriella vanishes. At the same moment, her senile grandfather is restored; he will live for another 20 years with the gift of second sight, a magical development that colors the novel with the hues of a fable. Blamed by the entire community for Gabriella’s disappearance, the devastated Sam assumes responsibility for her grandfather. He remains obsessed by their love affair and her disappearance even after the debauchery of his 20s gives way to a successful career and a happy young family. When Sam finds one of Gabriella’s early diaries, the eponymous “Book of Fire,” he brings an adult’s perspective to the complexities of their childhood. The mystery at the center of his life is solved but not resolved when Sam learns the horrifying secret behind Gabriella’s disappearance. And when she reappears 20 years later, he must choose between the woman he has spent his life fantasizing about and the life he has built without her. Unfortunately, at this point the author’s tendency to choose the fabulous over the realistic gets the better of him and Sam’s strongly centered character, which makes him so appealing to Gabriella and to the reader, suddenly stops making sense. Nonetheless, Armanno is a clever and engaging writer whose bittersweet elegy to a lost childhood lingers in the memory.
Affecting and engrossing, marred only by the disappointing end.