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Now that I am a mother, my imagination needs no help in conjuring up fears for the future my children will face. So it was with trepidation that I picked up Niccolo Ammaniti’s latest novel (which falls somewhere between Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Lord of the Flies), only to find myself inextricably hooked.
The story is set in Sicily in 2020, four years after a virus called Red Fever has swept around the world, killing the adult population and leaving their children to fend for themselves. And theirs will be humanity’s final generation, for the latent infection becomes active at adolescence and these last survivors will never reach maturity.
The story centres around 13-year-old Anna and 9-year-old Astor Zanchetti. Before her death, Anna’s mother wrote down everything her daughter needed to know to survive in an Important Book and for four years the pair have lived alone and undisturbed, surviving with what Anna can scavenge from the nearby village. Then she arrives home to find her brother gone and she embarks on a desperate search to find him. With the help of Paolo, a newcomer to the village who befriends her just before Astor’s disappearance, Anna tracks her brother to a mountain-top hotel full of dying children who believe it houses a mythical Grown-up who will cure them. Shocked by what she has seen and dismayed by Astor’s initial reluctance to leave his new companions, Anna is forced to face the fact that things cannot go back to the way they used to be, and they set off for the mainland with Paolo in the hope of finding somebody to take care of Astor before they, too, die.
Stark and confronting, the writing seethes with images of desperation, violence and death. Towns are decaying and most of the people they encounter have reverted to a more primitive way of being, from peri-adolescents who enslave younger children and force them to construct a massive marionette from human bones, to a gang of 6 and 7-year-olds who have reverted to a nearly pre-verbal hunter-gatherer state. Even Astor, whom Anna has spent years teaching to write, is losing this knowledge and will never read the Important Book. Yet, despite the loss and chaos that surround her, Anna refuses to give in to despair, recognising that "life is stronger than everything else — we must go on struggling against that whirlpool that sucks us down".
She lovingly decorates her mother’s skeleton with jewellery and a black felt-tip pen, gives the wild dog that befriends them the incongruous name of Fluffy, and dares to fall in love with Paolo like any "normal" teenager might. Determined to protect Astor above all else, her resolve and spirit are a life-affirming glimmer of light in the darkness and, as much as it haunted me, I could not put the book down.
Anna is an unforgettable read, but my parental guidance is to read it after your children are grown!
- Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.
Win a copy
• The ODT has five copies of Anna, by Niccolo Ammaniti, to give away courtesy of Text Publishing. For your chance to win a copy, email email@example.com with your name and postal address in the body of the email and "Anna" in the subject line, by 5pm on Tuesday, October 10.
LAST WEEK’S WINNERS
Winners of last week’s giveaway, Floods Another Chamber, by James Brown, courtesy of Victoria University Press: Janet Carrington, Garth Johnstone and Lyn Cvjetan, of Dunedin, Peter and Lynne Hill, of Mosgiel, and Doreen Edwards, of Balclutha.