Like a cactus you grow without bothering anyone

Me and You
by Niccolò Ammaniti
translated from Italian by Kylee Doust

Back in 2003 I reviewed Ammaniti’s bestselling novel I’m Not Scared for my student newspaper. I loved it, but I read a lot of great books that year and quickly forgot that particular one. When this novel came out and got positive reviews I recognised Ammaniti’s name but couldn’t place it. So it sat on my TBR for years before I finally picked it up – primarily because I wanted a short book to read.

This does what all good novellas do: keeps the story simple but emotionally powerful. It made me smile, it made me laugh, it made me catch my breath in shock. A misfit teenage boy narrator might be an old trope but Ammaniti does something original with it. And Lorenzo is not just any teenage misfit.

One February morning, 14-year-old Lorenzo packs for a skiing holiday with friends. He says goodbye to his family and then proceeds to hide in a rarely used cellar in the basement of his family’s apartment building. For a week.

“I started talking when I was three years old. Small talk has never been one of my strengths. If someone I didn’t know said something to me I would answer yes, no, I don’t know. And if they insisted, I would answer with whatever they wanted to hear me say.

Once you’ve thought something, what need is there to say it aloud?

‘Lorenzo, you’re like a cactus: you grow without bothering anyone, you just need a drop of water and a bit of light,’ an old nanny from Caserta used to say to me.”

Lorenzo has his reasons. Foremost is not disappointing his mother. Because the story is told from Lorenzo’s point of view, it’s not quite clear she knows exactly how hard – no, not hard, impossible – her son finds it to make friends. But she knows enough to cry for joy when she thinks Lorenzo has made friends and he can’t bring himself to undo that joy. So he hides in a basement.

Which sounds sad and depressing, but this book isn’t that. Lorenzo is sarcastically funny and humorously observant. But this book is about more than Lorenzo fending for himself. It’s also about the relationship between Lorenzo and his family, which is sweet in a realistic way.

I really enjoyed this book. I’ll definitely look out for Ammaniti’s other books translated into English.

Io e te first published 2010 by Giulio Einaudi editore.
This translation published 2012 by Canongate Books.