The story is about Ninon, who has found she has HIV, and about Gino, who decides he loves her so much that he will not allow it to come between them. It is also about Ninon's estranged parents, who are making their separate ways across Europe to attend their wedding. Maybe reading it in this hot weather affected how closely I was paying attention but I found it very difficult to follow. The story is narrated by a blind Greek man who sells 'tamata', some kind of quasi religious/superstitious talismans, who meets Ninon and her father briefly in the market, but he has a kind of god-like omniscience as he watches and relates to the reader the events and the thoughts of the various characters. The story jumps back and forth in time, telling the background of Ninon's childhood, and also jumps from person to person without preamble or indication, frequently leaving me not knowing who was speaking or when it was supposed to be happening.
I found it quite a sad story, because the parents are both much more wrapped up in the thought of losing their daughter than the idea of a celebration. This is the scene when they meet each other at the quayside, having not met for some years:
"Jean Ferrero and Zdena Holecek spotted each other before the ship was tied up, but they didn't wave. She came down the gangplank and walked across the paving stones to where he was standing beside his bike, by a white bridge which is like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, except that it is not roofed. He has taken off his helmet.
They look into one another's eyes and, seeing the same pain, fall forward into each other's arms.
Jean! And her voice, so helplessly expressive, carries his name across the entire continent.
Zdena! he whispers." (p.170)
We watch as Ninon goes through her anger and frustration at what has happened to her, until, after she accepts that Gino still wants to be with her, she decides to celebrate what is left of her life with relish. The description of the wedding itself it wonderful, it is an event that really draws the family and community together. Here they are when the dancing starts:
"Soon other couples join them. the music is loud. It bring the village to the square. The waiters serve wine. Federico is organising a game of leapfrog on the grass for the youngest kids. The sun is low in the west, and more and more people dance on the deck: a platform of planks which has been laid on the square in front of the band so that the dancing floor is level. The boards were borrowed from the fish market in Comacchio. there are many spectators, including a man in a wheelchair. Only when Gino and Ninon are lost in the crowd does the music come close to them." (p.193)
I think 'From A to X' was such a good book because it focussed so closely on one character, where this book tries to do too much, and I did not feel I got to know Ninon very much and so was not really wrapped up in the love story side. The people you really come to know are her parents as you watch them both on their lengthy journeys, seeing how they behave with the people they encounter along the way. Zdena in particular develops a bond of friendship with a man on the coach, to whom she confides practically her whole life story. The process of talking to him helps her see her own situation and grief over Ninon more clearly:
"It's hard, he says. We're living on the brink, and it's hard because we've lost the habit. Once everybody, old and young, rich and poor, took it for granted. Life was painful and precarious. Chance was cruel. ...
For two centuries we've believed in history as a highway which was taking us to a future such as nobody had ever known before. We thought we were exempt. ... We forgave the past its terrors because they occurred in the Dark Ages. Now, suddenly we find ourselves far from the highway, perched like puffins on a cliff ledge in the dark." (p.148-9)
This was the only quote I made a note of because I loved this idea of puffins on a cliff ledge in the dark. So many people, even good writers, when they write, use rehashed metaphors, tired old ones, but this is so imaginative and gives such a wonderful sense of vulnerability, of having to step into the unknown. This is what makes it such a good book. I still think (as I did last year) that I will seek out more of his books.