Salvatore Scibona’s debut novel The End, is not an easy or quick read. And though I waded through several passages and came out the other side with a resounding, “huh?”, there were certainly moments of beauty and deep insight. One thing Scibona has done very, very well here, is draw his characters. Most especially the character of widowed abortionist Costanza Marini.
The narrative takes place for the most part in Elephant Park, Ohio, a Cleveland neighborhood – an Italian immigrant community, and moves back and forth between the years 1913 and 1953. The anchoring event for both of those years is an Italian Street Festival celebrated on the 15th of August., the Feast of Ascension.
The time shifting is one thing. What I had trouble with were the shifting voices of the characters. Not that there are that many of them. But somehow I kept missing the shifts and the relationship between them, until too late. And I find it drudgery to go back and re-read whole sections because I only realized too late who was narrating at the time. Probably I should start keeping basic character notes. I keep promising myself I’ll do so but rarely do.
But it’s the characters themselves that are the real pleasures here anyway. And chief among them is Mrs. Marini. Costanza Marini is on the surface a manipulative, grizzled and embittered old woman. But she’s been carrying on an internal dialogue with her long dead husband for many years, and she’s a keen observer of the human soul. There’s this chilling observation:
A gull encountering a fish on the beach, she considered, will first dig out its eyes, which are softest and easiest of access and provide a clean route to the brains, which are soft, too. Is that why we look to the eyes? If I look you in the eye and you flinch, do you suspect me of plotting where to aim my spoon?
One of the concerns of the novel is with the immigrant experience. And the experience is seen from several generational points of view. I loved this observation from Mrs.Marini. Especially since it certainly put me in mind of some similar thoughts that can be found in the novel I had read before this one, Hari Kunzru’s The Impressionist.
You have not become an American until you have learned to impersonate yourself in a crowd.
A long-time widow, she has changed her perspective finally. About Death. About how she’s lived her life.
And she began to sum up, to tie contrary judgments together with a phrase and put them to one side. In this way discarded old remorses and confusions and made way for last things.
Mrs. Marini has decided to pass on things, or ‘apprentice’ a neighborhood girl, Lina. She has this wonderful description of Lina’s mind – her “I”:
Deliberation did not cause, precede, or otherwise clutter her deeds; this was what you admired her for. Her mind was not a chamber in which a crowd of lawyers competed to direct and obstruct her will; it was a forest, and deep inside, alone, in a cool pond, her I swam freely on its back and scrutinized the tangled canopy of thought overhead.
Mrs. Marini, who is old anyway, is starting to feel very old.
Once inside, she kept her long johns on and wore a stocking hat in place of her hair. She couldn’t remember a chill that had lingered so long and defied so many means of throwing it off. She made herself wear a shawl – and she despised shawls. The urge to wear a shawl is the body’s advice that you had better get your paperwork in order and unhide the petty cash so your heirs won’t miss it.
This is a book that may require two readings to uncover pleasues thatr may have been missed the first time around. That’s fine for those who have that instinct. As for me, I must be off to the next.