Niccolo Ammaniti is one of Italy's up-and-coming writers of fiction for young adults. I'm Not Scared is the first of his stories to be translated into English - and it's a corker.
With a title like this, readers should know what they're in for. Ammaniti's tightly constructed thriller is a widely praised international best-seller, and deservedly so. It is a highly original spine-tingler, with a nine-year-old boy as its central character, but this book is not for the very young - it includes some adult content and is definitely for older teens and adults.
The story is set in Ammaniti's native Italy, which makes a nice change from stories set in Britain, the US or some fantasy land. A heatwave is making life in a tiny village in the southern Italian countryside difficult. The adults hardly move from their houses, and the kids play lazily in the streets.
Michele Amitrano lives with his younger sister, mum and dad in one of the village's broken-down houses. There isn't much money here, and the villagers get by as best they can. Michele's father spends a lot of his time working in northern Italy, and when he does come home, Michele feels he is distant. But his mother is devoted to her two children, and she provides all the love and attention they need.
Michele gets along well with the other kids in the village. One of the books' many plus points is the author's vivid description of the village kids. Michele and his gang are very much individuals, and Ammaniti captures the shifting patterns, small quarrels and ups-and-downs of young relationships brilliantly. But the kids are bored, tired and hot. Something might soon reach boiling point.
The village is sun-baked, dry and dead, but sometimes the kids escape on their bikes to explore the never-ending wheat fields and long roads in the surrounding countryside. One day, as they are playing in the grounds of an empty house, Michele makes a horrific discovery. He finds what he believes to be the dead body of a boy in a deep hole. But he is too scared to tell his friends. When he goes back alone to the house, he finds that the boy is alive but weak, confused and unable to communicate. Michele knows he has to help the boy. He also senses there is something very wrong going on.
It becomes obvious to the reader that the half-dead boy has been kidnapped. Slowly we learn that all the adults in the village are involved in very dark doings and that the boy will be shot if his parents don't come up with a ransom. What can Michele do?
Older readers will find this well-written, gripping book hard to put down. A truly outstanding read.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com