Review: Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello

Can You Hear Me?

Elena Varvello

June 5, 2018

Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello is the winner of the English PEN Award, translated into English for the first time.

It is the summer of 1978, and Elia Furenti is a 16-year-old boy living in the small northern Italian town of Ponte. His mother, Marta, is the local librarian, a still vivid woman desperately in love with her husband. Ettore is a handsome man who adores Marta in return, laughing constantly and usually joking around with his wife and child.

But there were moments when he’d change, and he’d lock himself in the garage and we were not to disturb him. He’d sit under the porch canopy on the swing for hours, wringing his hands, biting his lips. I caught him sobbing one afternoon—everything was still fine then—sitting in the bathtub, pale and shivering, with his knees clutched to his chest.

When he was particularly tired or worried, he’d stutter: he’d pause, shake his head, hit his thigh with his closed fist.

He could freeze in a second—[Marta] never was able to do the same—and become cold and sarcastic; he’d stare at us as if we were wrong somehow, his lips curled in a sneer; then everything would go back to normal and I’d hear them muttering, I’d hear my father’s laugh.

Ettore’s precarious mental health takes a long downward slide when the cotton mill where he works is forced to close down, costing him his beloved job. As his behavior grows increasingly erratic, his family struggles to cope as best they can. Elia begins to shut himself off from the rest of the town, while Marta insists that everything is just fine. Then, a little boy is murdered, and dark suspicions begin to rear their heads in Elia’s mind. But it is the night that a young woman gets into Ettore’s van and disappears with him into the woods that Elia’s family changes forever.

Even as the relationships that have most defined Elia are beginning to unravel, he finds himself making new ones with another isolated teenage boy and his equally lonely mother. Almost two decades ago, Anna Trabuio ran away from Ponte, not even returning for her own mother’s funeral. When she comes back to town with her teenage son, Stefano, in tow, Marta forbids Elia from socializing with their family. But Stefano and Elia share a connection in their longing for their unreachable fathers, and their friendship is one of the things that sustains Elia through that long, hot, unbearable summer.

I can’t actually remember what we did that afternoon. Time came to meet us, and when we faced it, when we were together, it seemed to slow down, and that was enough.

I remember we laughed about something he’d told me—his hiccuping laughter, the way he squeezed his eyes—and that his mother came out and just stared at us. She ended up laughing too, and I liked that image—the three of us laughing, in [Grandfather] Trabuio’s poor excuse for a garden. I thought there could be nothing in the world to be afraid of.

Can You Hear Me? is a claustrophobic psychological thriller that deftly explores a young man’s coming of age even as his father begins to lose himself in the darkest recesses of his mind. Elena Varvello’s prose is spare, suiting the layered narrative well as it shifts in time and imagining while Elia tries to make sense of everything happening around him—especially his unfathomable father. Ably translated from the Italian by Alex Valente, the novel captures that important transitional period in any young person’s life while adding the greater pressures of a mentally unstable father and the circumstances of unexplained violence. It pulls together threads from the past, present, and future to create a quietly haunting tapestry of a young man who must accept his father’s legacy and learn to grow beyond it into his own life and happiness.

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