#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews FROM ANOTHER WORLD by Evelina Santangelo

Evelina Santangelo is a well-known novelist in Italy and winner of several major prizes, which makes the publication of her first novel in English a long overdue pleasure. Sincere thanks to translator Ruth Clarke and publisher Granta, as From Another World is a substantial gift to readers.

‘The book arose from a question that struck me as extremely urgent’, Santangelo explains in her ‘Author’s Note’. ‘What does it mean to produce literature in dark times?’ The topic of the book is indeed one of the darkest of our times – the refugee crisis in Europe – and to tackle it the author combines facts and real events with fiction, ghosts, horror and fertile imaginings. It is a sizzling mix, gripping, beautifully written and deeply troubling. In the same way I turn away from a film if it is too shocking, I had to turn away from certain passages of this novel, where the depiction of human suffering and cruelty were too much. But From Another World is our world, and this novel is important because it gives shape to individual stories of ‘illegals’ or ‘waves of migrants’ – those lazy euphemisms and labels that we use every day and that Santangelo herself only refers to in quotation marks.

The time is now. The setting is Europe. The two individuals in this novel whose stories run parallel are thirteen-year-old Khaled, who arrived with his little brother, Nadir, in Sicily on a refugee ship three years before from an unnamed Middle Eastern country; and Karolina, a white middle-aged Belgian woman whose teenage son Andreas has disappeared, possibly to join a radical right-wing terror group. Khaled and Karolina are the two innocents of the novel who both undergo gruelling journeys – geographically, physically and psychologically. They meet only once, in a discount shop in Brussels, where Khaled, hungry and on the run after the death of his brother, meets Karolina by chance; she spontaneously and selflessly buys him food, clothing and the red suitcase he clearly covets. After her life unravels, after her husband and son have left, after she discovers her son’s dark secrets, Karolina recalls that the boy with the red suitcase was ‘the last person who made her feel like she could do something for someone’. Her selfless act backfires badly, fuelled by the kind of fear-mongering, rumours and fake news to which we are all susceptible, and which are described by Santangelo so perceptively. Khaled and Karolina’s lives spiral out of control, and soon the locations of the novel spread beyond Palermo and Brussels until there is a Europe-wide media and police hunt for an innocent boy and naïve housewife.

Khaled drags the red suitcase with him everywhere, from city to city, from stinking sewer to railway station, from the backs of lorries to building sites. His beloved mother’s and grandmother’s many positive sayings from his childhood spur him on: ‘The rope of life is short!’; ‘Happiness … will always attract something good!’ He and his brother had come to Europe to seek a better life but, ‘He didn’t know where exactly this Europe began … He’d imagined a long journey in the lorry they boarded not far from home, and, after a few days, Europe, where there was someone to give them a job on a building site’. Is there something in the suitcase, we ask, or is it a metaphor? Is it one of the many flights of imagination that burst into the narrative? Khaled often doesn’t know if he is alive or dead, and in a story also populated by ghosts, you might question your own grasp on reality.

Karolina’s journey is shorter geographically, in the search for her son, but, you could argue, much further in search of herself. For a woman whose previous life was clouded by comfort and gullibility, when she finds herself browsing videos of jihadist and neo-Nazi propaganda, she soon touches her own baseline of self-hatred and loneliness. At that moment she is able to imagine herself in her son’s shoes. That the novel is not only a magnificent act of empathy on Santangelo’s part, but also the result of extensive research, is clear when you read the ‘Afterword’.

Khaled and Karolina are both ‘insignificant specks of nothing in front of something vast’ – individuals who also represent a vast reality. Their stories are devastating, but there is also love, kindness and beauty. From Another World is an electrifying novel of great power, imagination and lyrical splendour. Even if all the many characters and plotlines do not ultimately coalesce, the beauty of this novel is in how Evelina Santangelo draws us in and shows us our responsibility for a world that we imperfect humans have helped create.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

FROM ANOTHER WORLD

By Evelina Santangelo

translated by Ruth Clarke

Published by Granta (2021)


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Rosie Goldsmith is director and founder of the European Literature Network and Editor-in-Chief of The Riveter. She was a BBC broadcaster for twenty years and is today an arts journalist and presenter. She was chair of the judges for the EBRD Literature Prize 2018-2020.

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