#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews THE HUMMINGBIRD by Sandro Veronesi

‘Hummingbird’ is the nickname given to this novel’s protagonist, Marco Carrera, by his mother when he was a small, beautiful and agile child. Marco was born in Florence in 1959, the same year and city as his creator, Sandro Veronesi. Over the course of the novel we meet Marco’s parents, Probo and Laetizia, his siblings, Umberto and Irene, his lover, Luisa, then his wife, Marina and daughter Adele, and also her daughter, Miraijin; plus his friends, their friends, various therapists. The novel is replete with people, places and events, with death, love, grief and breakdown. It is a compendium of the lives flocking round Marco and a homage to many of the world’s great writers, thinkers and ideas. Passages on the Aztecs, Japanese culture, poetry or model railways are scattered across its pages. To form a complete picture of someone’s life, Veronesi seems to be saying, one must examine how real people live: they eat, go to school, the beach, have furniture they don’t like; someone phones them out of the blue, or they read something interesting in the paper that influences their actions. Events are also given context by referring to the news of the day – the Haiti earthquake, the Red Brigades, for example; timecodes, dates and years often introduce chapters. 

Sandro Veronesi is a gracious, generous and mature writer, and under his guidance the many narrative devices and chronological leaps back and forth (also into the future) grow and mature into a remarkable novel. This piecemeal approach shouldn’t work, but Maestro Veronesi is in control: it’s a clever structure and the plot twists and turns and thunders along. ‘Il Colibrì’ won the 2019 Premio Strega, Italy’s top literary prize, and thanks to Elena Pala (who was obviously born to translate this novel) it has become The Hummingbird. It is Veronesi’s ninth novel and his second Strega. If you don’t yet know the work of one of Europe’s finest writers, start here.

Author and protagonist share the storytelling. Everything we read is filtered through the first-person narrative of the Italian ophthalmologist Marco Carrera, but also through the lens of the all-knowing, benevolent third-person narrator with his regular conversational asides to the reader: ‘Let that sink in’ or ‘one might say’ or ‘and now what?’. A postcard from 1998 forms chapter two; chapter three is a phone call between Marco and his wife’s therapist. Through this ingenious method we are thrown into Marco’s inner life. 

Marco is an average man with a hero complex and an eventful life. As a child his idol, his older sister Irene, threatens to kill herself and he believes it is his task to save ‘his incredibly smart and incredibly tormented sister’. His parents are clearly incompatible and pass their misery on to their children. His brother disappears to the US, but Marco keeps writing to him – letters of longing. Marco then meanders into marriage, not to the on-off love of his life, Luisa, but after seeing his wife-to-be Marina on the TV news. They struggle to make marriage work, but eventually their lies and betrayals bring tragedy. Marina ‘was not the person she fought hard to be’. Marina and their daughter Adele develop severe mental health problems and a fascinating strand of psychotherapy is introduced, although it is Marco’s own insights and ‘flashes of clarity’ that add depth: ‘All my life I’ve been surrounded by psychotherapists, and in spite of that everyone around me was still in so much pain.’

The novel movingly reflects the fullness and complexity of Marco’s life, the pain and ‘howling desperation’ of his many losses and responsibilities. He nurses his difficult parents before they both die from cancer. He is flawed, his heroism is often blind and naïve, but he is a kind and caring man who battles on regardless: 

‘He saw everything, but that vision was so unbearable … that he immediately erased it from his memory and went on living as though it had never happened.’ 

The joy Marco experiences in caring for his daughter and granddaughter elevates his life above the pain and mundane, and, as readers, the lasting emotion we feel as we close the pages of this beautiful novel is love.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi 

Translated by Elena Pala

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2021)

July 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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