The Sense of an Elephant by Marco Missiroli (tr. Stephen Twilley)

A rare deviation from me here – I actually read and am actually reviewing an unsolicited review copy! I know, world gone mad. I usually leave these to mould on the  shelf before they get passed on to a friend/family member/charity shop, but I actually decided to give this one a go. Not least because it came to me from Picador, a publisher I like, but also because it came with a note from publicist Kate Green explaining the very sweet and quite cool little scheme that Picador have thought up to help promote the book. See:

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Pretty cool right? It’s a nice touch, and encourages sharing the book, which I like. Also, the opportunity to pass the proof to someone else who might like it – or because you don’t want to keep it. Either way I like the idea.

So, the book itself. Having liked the concept, I was happy to find I liked the book as I began to read. I think as with any translated book you’ve got to take that fact into account as you read, but regardless I thought that the prose was careful and elegant, simple but effective. We are introduced to our main character, Pietro, who has just taken a job as a concierge at a condominium (essentially a small block of flats) in Milan. He looks after the building, and, you soon realise, its residents. He is particularly interested in the Martini family, and more than once enters their flat when they are out, observing their lives and taking a bicycle bell. What is he up to?

Pietro quickly makes friends with the Martinis’ neighbour, Poppi, who proves to be a charming and wise, slightly world-weary character who is easy to like. There is also Fernando, who appears to ave some kind of autism, and his mother Viola. This cast of misfits come together as Pietro’s mystery slowly unfolds for the reader.

I have to say I liked the sense of mystery that was built up, and even when you know most of the secrets, the story is still engaging. There are odd little flashbacks to Pietro’s time as a young priest, which fit in nicely and aren’t too jarring. They of course slowly shed light on the mystery.

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About two thirds of the way through the book, things start to get a little more intense, and I found both the style of writing and the events of the story becoming more and more dreamlike. To be honest it gets a bit surreal and I wondered why certain things were happening, and why some characters were acting as they were. This developed as the book went on, and though some things were concluded nicely, others were not. This is a story that needs good conclusions, and the ending was just a bit off for me. I think I just didn’t quite get it, which is unfortunate. Maybe I need to reread it a bit and work out what the author was trying to do. But I still liked the book overall, and the ideas that were explored.

Anyway, please don’t let that put you off giving this book a go. It really is rather good, and there is a lot of intelligence and beauty inside.

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 Originally published in Italy (2012) as Il Senso dell’Elefante by Ugo Guanda Editore. Published by Picador in the UK in September 2015. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.

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