“Enchantments” by Linda Ferri

A little novel brims with the wonders and sorrows of growing up.

Topics: Books,

There are some books that are so, so small, that in their smallness they become large and looming. Linda Ferri’s “Enchantments” is a lovely slip of a book that would be easy to dismiss: Neither its size (in hardcover, it could fit in your pocket) nor the candy colors of its dust jacket suggest seriousness. At a mere 131 pages, it’s hard to even think of it as a novel. But the story it contains is just potent enough to feel huge and strong, and immensely satisfying.

“Enchantments,” which was translated from Italian by John Casey, takes the form of a memoir in 25 short, thematic chapters, told from the point of view of an unnamed Italian child who moves to Paris with her family. Hers is an idyllic childhood: summers in her family’s Tuscan villa, evenings with a kindly nanny named Dame Dame. The girl and her younger sister, Clara, of whom she says, “We’re one single being,” spend most of their time in pursuit of childish amusement — campaigning for a new doll, acting out scenes from “Little Women” — and warring with their older brothers. Her father makes his fortune in Paris and veritably spoils his children; when the girl tells her father she likes horses, he buys her four of them.

This young heroine’s life is so perfect, in fact, it is enough to drive any reader crazy with jealousy. But there’s also something refreshingly honest about her inability to appreciate her pampered existence, or to respond to her friends’ need to do chores with anything other than disappointment that they can’t come out and play, or the disproportionate rage she and Clara feel when their brothers hang the girls’ dolls from the trees outside their house: “When we discover this outrage, this cruelty, this profanation, we fill the house with our screams.”

Adult-size sorrows do unfurl around her, but they are too big for her to understand: There is the death of a teacher, and her first encounter with mass anger at the demonstrations on the Champ de Mars in May 1968, which she watches from her father’s shoulders. (This is the only date in the book, and the only indication that the story is rooted in a particular moment in history.) But as the shadows of the wilderness stretch and grow darker around her, one gets a sense, even before family tragedy hits at the end of the book, that this Edenic existence will crash to a close. The girl, after all, has to grow up.

Beyond the pages of this novel, we know, our little Italiana will indeed grow up, and grow into the complex desires and worries that begin to bud in her smaller self. Fancying herself a tragic heroine, she harbors “a shameful dark wish” when acting out “Little Women” to play the role of Beth, the one who dies in the end, “breaking everybody’s heart.” She finds that she prefers pain over boredom, purposefully seeking out a gang of children who leap out of the bushes and whip her about the legs with switches, in order to drive away “the insipid afternoons.” And most tellingly, her relationship with her father — the central dynamic of the story, besides her relationship with her sister — bewilders her; she’s terrified of his wrath, even as she calls him “magical” for all the ways he spoils her rotten. After announcing to him that she doesn’t like boys, he asks if she likes him. “‘Yes, Papa,’ I murmur, lowering my head. ‘Yes.’ But I’m not telling the whole truth. Because even though I’m very fond of him, I would like him better if he were a woman.”

It’s the small, tense scenes like these that make “Enchantments” stick. This is Ferri’s first novel (she co-authored the screenplay for the 2001 Palme d’Or-winning “The Son’s Room”), and it is always a good sign when debuts are this charming and real. It is a hard thing to make a novel that is so small and fleeting an experience that will last beyond its pages, and Ferri has accomplished it admirably.

Priya Jain is a freelance writer in New York.

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