Already a bestseller in the many countries where it has been published, I’m Not Scared was described to me as a modern version of The Go-Between. After struggling through the wooden introduction to a group of children cycling up a hill somewhere in the south of Italy, I was steeling myself for one of those second-rate bits of whimsy like Silk or Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress which unaccountably become international bestsellers. But the secret soon discovered by Michele, the child-narrator, is not just emotionally confusing like the illicit love affair to which the boy is made accessory in L. P. Hartley’s novel, but a very real horror. The dust- jacket is coy about it, but it’s not giving much away to reveal that Michele stumbles across a kidnap victim, a boy of his own age who is being held to ransom in foul conditions by a group including Michele’s father, with the silent collusion of his mother.
It is, to say the least, a very compelling dramatic situation. Michele is both repelled and intrigued. He does not understand who the boy is or why he is there, and his parents are too fraught to respond when he tries to ask. Only when he happens to see an appeal by the boy’s mother on television does the truth begin to dawn, but even so he has no grasp of the boy’s pain, of the kidnappers’ violence, or indeed of the criminal nature of the situation. There is a powerful tension between Michele’s knowledge and his inability, both mental and physical, to respond to the situation as the reader wants him to. It is unputdownable. But for it to be more than that – for it to be a good novel rather than an emotional flutter – it needs to draw out the psychological and moral tensions inherent in the plot.
Unfortunately, Ammaniti’s use of the child’s-eye narrative is not sufficiently skilful to do this. It might be said that the situation speaks for itself, but a good novel will challenge and develop what a reader brings to it, according to how things are described. In I’m Not Scared the adults are compromised to a monstrous degree but they are quite flat. So you either assume they are monsters or project your own attitudes, which is unsatisfactory. Moreover, most bright children would make much more of the little that Michele did apprehend. Frankly, he seemed a bit dopey. A bright child would surely show greater moral imagination in such a situation – and there’s precious little hope for a child’s-eye narrative if the child is not bright.
The dimness of Michele’s understanding may be poignant, but it is no more than that: yet he is caught up in what should be a harrowing tragedy. This is unsettling. It may be unfair to criticise an author for not writing a book that he did not set out to write, but I was left with a slightly unpleasant sense of having been played with; as if Ammaniti had toyed with a terrible situation to give his readers a little thrill of horror instead of creating something substantial.