If I could sum up Niccolo Ammaniti’s latest novel in one word it would simply be ENGROSSING! From its shocking opening (which instantly imbues the reader with a firm notion of the wayward characteristics of two of the principle characters), to the flick of the final page, I found myself riveted by The Crossroads as it took me on a veritable ‘roller-coaster ride’ where the plot twists and turns to almost vomit inducing levels.
It’s perhaps appropriate that I mention ‘vomit’ because The Crossroads is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Although its integral to the story (something which becomes apparent as reading progresses), the novel is gratuitously violent and shockingly sexual at times, but the powerful pace of the action, coupled with the quality of Ammaniti’s prose (and Johnathan Hunt’s flawless translation) makes this novel truly all-absorbing and, if you can grimace through those nasty bits, it’s utterly compelling.
So what’s The Crossroads all about then? Well firstly I’d better tell you that this is third novel published by Niccolo Ammaniti, and it comes on the back of his highly venerated second novel, I’m Not Scared. Although brand-new in its English translation, The Crossroads has been in publication in the vernacular since 2006, and was awarded the prestigious Premio Strega Prize in Italy in 2007. Its plot at a fundamental level is simplistic – it follows the story of a group of friends who are plotting to rob a local bank, but it’s not long before the basic plot of The Crossroads branches out and becomes more complex, and in some quite remarkable and unpredictable ways.
If you’ve read either of his previous novels (Steal You Away or the afore-mentioned I’m Not Scared) you’ll know that Niccolo Ammaniti does characters well, really well – especially pubescent ones who are forced to put aside their childhood and deal with very adult situations – and The Crossroads is no different. The chief protagonist is Cristiano Zena, a thirteen year old boy who lives alone with his violent-tempered, drunken father Rino, and the relationship between father and son can be seen as the primary ‘plot driver’ in The Crossroads. Ammaniti has developed these two characters incredibly well and you may, like me, find yourself building a strong feeling of empathy for both of them as the novel unfolds. Cristiano and Rino aren’t the only ones superbly characterised in The Crossroads, and I think I can state without fear of contradiction that almost every character in this novel is exceptionally well realised, to such a level where they’re sure to stay in the mind of the reader for a long time to come (especially Quattro Formaggi and Danilo Aprea). Only one author has managed to create characters as memorable as that for me so far, and that’s the great John Steinbeck, so take from that what you will, although it’s an obvious compliment.
Another triumph I found with The Crossroads is the way that the author has utilised ‘perspective’ throughout the novel. He often relates incidents by switching to the perspective of different characters, and this has the effect of bringing both a high pace and excitement to the story which borders on ‘breakneck’, and leaves you clinging to the ‘handrail’ of that proverbial roller-coaster I mentioned at the start. Factor in Ammaniti’s exceptional use of ‘inner dialogue’ for his characters and you have a novel that leaves you pretty much gasping at the end.
So all-in-all I would consider The Crossroads to be an absolute work of triumph. As I’ve said, its level of violence and sexual content does makes it inappropriate for some readers (especially those under the age of 18), but for those not easily offended The Crossroads an absolute must-read; one that you will remember for a long time to come.