Review: The Fallen, by Stephen Finucan

When I turned the book over and read the back cover, I was excited. This story takes place in Naples, just after the British have liberated the city from the Germans in 1943. This seemed to be a time, place and story of the Second World War of which I was unfamiliar. It sounded like it would be tense and mysterious. Finucan aims to accomplish both of these things, but unfortunately I felt as though he never really got there.

I could never really figure out who the protagonist was in The Fallen. We are first introduced to sketchy Aldo Cioffi, a rogue who survived by giving prostitutes fake certificates of heath during the war. Now the war is over, and Aldo’s fallen into the wrong crowd of street criminals in the city. Should he try and escape their debts and risk his life or work against those in his family and become a criminal himself? Once we meet Aldo, we are immediately whisked off to another scene following Luisa Gennaro and her cousin who live together on the brink of starvation, barely making enough to get by. Just as Louisa learns that while she’s at the hospice working with the dying, her cousin has been working as a prostitute, we are again introduced to another character: Thomas Greaves. Thomas is the only Canadian in the story, though that seems like the only role the country has in the entire novel; an adjective to provide loose and stereotypical characteristics to the young soldier. It’s clear that some terrible thing has happened to Greaves in the line of duty, but the reader is simply teased by this fact as, I assume, Finucan hopes to whet our appetite and have us read on, intrigued. Lastly, we meet Augusto Parente, the chief curator of the National Archeological Museum who happens to be the uncle of Aldo Cioffi. Did I mention that Luisa also works at the museum? And that Greaves is in charge of field security in Naples? He checks in frequently with the team at the museum as they attempt to do an inventory of what remains after the war. So, yes – after quickly meeting each character in their own scene (yet somehow with an antagonizing amount of unnecessary detail), we learn they are all connected and now the plot can finally begin. Hooray.

Are you confused yet? I was too, but once I thought about it, I realized that someone had maybe advised Finucan to introduce all his characters before they start interacting so he wrote four individual scenes describing each one. It all seemed a bit forced, and the parts that were teasers, like what I mentioned about Greaves, was like framework from a “How to Write a Novel” self-help book. I know that all seems rather harsh, but I felt really saddened by the potential this book had and how in no way, in my opinion, did it take advantage of its creativity. There was one truly eye rolling scene where one of the bosses of the dirty street criminals is threatening someone and part way through, grabs a small lizard and rips off its tail. He explains that if the lizard is smart and stealthy, it will survive, but if not, it will be taken down by another predator. Of course it’s a metaphor.

The sad thing, is that the ending of this book is actually pretty spectacular. I didn’t see it coming, it was written extremely well, and even though I still didn’t feel like I knew the characters well enough, I cared about their well-being.

At the end of the book, there’s an interview with Finucan where he talks about how this book has few settings and the interviewer mentions that sometimes it reads like a play. I think it would make a fantastic play. I wanted to see these characters. I feel like that would help me know them better and follow their story with more enthusiasm.

This is the first time in the 15 books I’ve read so far that I’ve felt led astray by the Canada Reads 10th Anniversary long list. This book showed no creativity in the writing, and what creativity there was in the story itself, was lost to the inabilities of the author to make it shine. Not only that, the book has nothing to do with Canada, nor the Canadian spirit.

Sigh. With that, it’s on to my first Atwood. (GASP. I know)

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