Luca, his mom and his cat, Blue, live together in a city in Italy. His mom is often lost in her own thoughts. She is lonely, depressed, moody, and sometimes over medicated. Luca is the adult in the room. He is far more stable and far more mature than his years would indicate. He refers to himself as “half-orphan”, since there is no dad in his life, and he is grateful he is not a “whole one”. Then, one day, he wakes up to find that his mom is still asleep, or is she? When he returns from school, having the wherewithal to figure out how to get there and back on his own, his worst fears are realized. She is still not up and he wonders if she could be dead. In addition to his sadness, he is terrified. If he is now a full orphan, if anyone finds out, will he be taken away to an orphanage, away from his home, away from his cat, forced to sleep with strangers in one large, cold room and forced to follow strict rules, forced to be with no one who loves him? Over the ensuing days, this young grade school boy begins to experience and, therefore, understand his mother’s loneliness, but he alternates between sadness and confusion, feeling almost angry sometimes. Why wasn’t he enough to make her happy? Why couldn’t she talk to him and tell him if she was sad? Why would she take too many pills?
Luca decides to pretend that his mother is still alive. He is, he decides, not an orphan, but a single person. He is remarkably bright, possessing an uncanny ability to adapt to the situation, handle his fear and put on an appropriate face for the people he encounters. He survives for several days without descending into a state of despair, even believing that perhaps after three days she might be resurrected like Christ. He revisits his conversations with his mom and becomes a skillful liar to protect himself; he figures out how to get money from the cash machine, how to shop and how to somehow survive. However, the home sinks into a state of terrible disorder and filth. There are no clean clothes. The dishes pile up in the sink, food runs out, and Luca begins to have nightmares. Then the body begins to emit a dreadful smell. Although he has the wherewithal to throw open all the windows hoping the winter temperatures will freeze the body and stop the horrible odor, he soon falls down, unconscious. He is beginning to lose hope. How can he manage? A terrible loneliness overtakes him as he realizes there is no one he can turn to for help. When he is almost at the end of his rope, the doorbell rings and instead of pretending either he is not at home or his mom is away, as he has been doing, he goes to answer it. With that, the book abruptly ends and the reader is left wondering, who is on the other side of that door? What will happen to this charming little boy? This ending will disturb many a reader. I simply created my own ending and ended the hopelessness of the situation for a scenario with a brighter future of my own making.
I loved the cover art because it perfectly depicted an innocent child, with a little mischief in his soul, leaning back on his chair, oblivious to the fact that he could fall with disastrous results. He has the spirit of a youngster, the spirit that makes him feel invincible. The line drawing of the cat made me wonder if he might not have been an imaginary friend, a product of the child’s imagination, rather than being a real pet. Luca is brighter than the average grade school boy. He is constantly thinking, questioning and working things out in his head, exploring all angles. His philosophizing is almost mesmerizing and that ability to think things through is the quality that makes him strong. He inspires himself with his own encouraging words, pays attention to detail, doesn’t hurry, but patiently works things out. There is a clarity to his purely childish, but brilliant logic. As an adult, I know that although Luca feels that he failed his mother, at his tender age, he could not have helped her, not have really understood the depth of her problems. His thoughts, in their candor, are bittersweet, for he longs for things to be the way they were.
The author has totally gotten inside the head of the child and she drags the reader with her, perhaps kicking and screaming. The denial of the death and then the ensuing decaying of the body is gruesome. The decline of the stability of the child is heartbreaking. This is really a sad, terrible tale of loss and helplessness with no definitive message of hope at the end. Yet, it is a very worthwhile read. This charming child is able to use language to express himself completely. The narrative is almost like one long soliloquy, sometimes even humorous in spite of the disastrous loss, as the naïve simplistic ruminations of a child are brought into the light of day and explored.
Just as the tragedy is almost another character in the book so, too, is the reader, for the reader will not fail to wonder, at the end, what just happened?