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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Three Light-Years

Andrea Canobbio

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To purchase Three Light-Years

Title: Three Light-Years
Author: Andrea Canobbio
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 356 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Three Light-Years - US
Three Light-Years - UK
Three Light-Years - Canada
Three Light-Years - India
Tre anni luce - Italia
  • Italian title: Tre anni luce
  • Translated by Anne Milano Appel

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Our Assessment:

B : intriguingly done but almost too thorough character(s)-study

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Rev. of Books . 14/8/2014 Francine Prose

  From the Reviews:
  • "Canobbio (...) avoids the obvious pitfalls, largely as a result of his acuity and inventiveness, the specificity and density of his detail, the elegance of his style, and the depth of his psychological insight." - Francine Prose, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Three Light-Years may seem an odd title, but like most everything about this carefully planned-out novel, it is very fitting. The novel is presented in three parts, devoted to the events of 2002, 2003, and 2004, but while it covers a three-year span, 'light-years' is, of course, less a measure of time than of distance, and there is a lot of distance -- emotional, mainly, not physical, but nevertheless -- in this story.
       Three Light-Years is also told at a distance -- a very odd distance. The novel has an unnamed narrator write about his father, a doctor named Claudio. In the opening paragraph he already notes: "my father is gone, too", and this turns out to be literally true: the narrator ostensibly writes his story decades in the future, after all the central characters have died. Only surfacing occasionally, the narrator is not much more than a shadowy presence, and yet it is surely his story, in a sense, that is being told here: he identifies Claudio as his father -- already in his early forties in 2002, but still childless when the novel begins -- and the story opens with Claudio beginning, tenuously, a relationship with another doctor, Cecilia. The reader may be careful about jumping to conclusions -- as it turns out, the narrator never identifies his mother in so many words -- but the narrative certainly seems to be moving towards being the story of just how Claudio became the narrator's father. In fact, that's exactly what this novel is -- though probably not quite in the way readers are initially lead to anticipate.
       Three Light-Years is also very much about memory. The narrator opens the novel: "Memory is an empty room", and similarly grand pronouncements on the nature of memory pop up throughout the novel. The characters are plagued by memories -- 'plagued' in the very broadest sense -- and, in some cases, by the loss of memory and memories. Claudio's mother doesn't have Alzheimer's, but is beginning to lose her mind. Most notably -- though this really only becomes obvious at the end -- the narrator plays free and loose with memories and facts: never figuring in the action of the three-year-span described here, he nevertheless provides a detailed account of much that happened -- impossibly detailed, of course: he can't have any memory of it, nor, as it turns out, can he rely on the memories of those involved; it eventually becomes clear that he is an entirely unreliable narrator, and that what he has formed here is a picture entirely of his making. Canobbio isn't toying wither readers; to him, his narrator's approach is entirely valid: actual memory is only good for so much -- as suggested also in the novel's closing scene, which has demented Marta, Claudio's mother, perhaps no longer fully anchored in past and present but effortlessly recognizing the essence of the most important things.
       Three Light-Years is a novel of the narrator figuring out who his parents were, but at this enormous distance: the narrator removes himself entirely from their lives, and largely from his story. He tells of how Claudio and Cecilia came to know one another, and of their unusual relationship. His focus is first entirely on Claudio's perspective, but he also delves into Cecilia's life; eventually he shifts perspectives back and forth, repeating his descriptions of some of what happened from each of their points of view -- and then also from another point of view, that of Cecilia's younger sister, Silvia.
       Three Light-Years is a novel about family relationships, but the family-units are off kilter. Both Claudio and Cecilia have been married. Claudio divorced years earlier, but his wife continues to live in the same building as he does, with her new husband and their children; she remains very close to Marta and helps look after her. Cecilia and her husband, Luca, split up more recently; they had two children together, and while Luca continues to be a helpful father figure, he does so at some remove. Both Claudio and Cecilia's fathers have died, but their mothers are still alive. Complicating Cecilia's situation is her younger child Mattia's eating disorder -- though that is also what first brings Claudio and Cecilia together. Mattia's domineering older sister, Michela, just coming into her teens, seems much more well-adjusted but has a fraught relationship with her mother, feeling she doesn't get the same devoted attention from her as her brother does; eventually, Michela begins to spend more time at her aunt Silvia's. Silvia, of course, is also unmarried ..... (The only happily married couple appears to be Claudio's former wife and her new husband; typically, there's almost no glimpse of that successful traditional family unit.)
       While the set-up suggests a story of romance, it is the generational family relationships -- parents and children, especially -- that are the real heart of the novel. As far as romances go, Claudio and Cecilia's is an awkward, bumbling one; this is no grand love story. It's dealing with parents (and children) that is central, from how Cecilia deals with her two kids to Claudio and Cecilia's relationships with their own parents. A scene when Luca reveals what drove him away from Cecilia has him admit he was unable to address the situation properly and directly with her; among what he felt at the time: "I wanted a parent to yell at her". And, hovering almost entirely in the background, is the narrator, carefully dropping some hints about his own relationship with his father but on the whole remaining beyond the story at hand.
       Rather than reconstructing the past through memories, the narrator is constructing his own past here. The witnesses safely out of the way, he can describe events in close detail, sometimes the same events from different vantage points -- as if that somehow made them more real or plausible. It's an interesting concept, and it is well-executed; it's also a bit much, a very painstakingly, involved account. These are fine character portraits, of people brought together and continuing in various orbits around one another -- Cecilia is drawn to Claudio, but keeps him at a certain distance; withdrawn Claudio is head over heels in love but doesn't no how to act on it; Silvia's appearance adds yet another complicating twist to the whole mess.
       The story feels oddly adrift: despite writing from decades in the future, the narrator resolutely drops barely a clue of what became of anyone -- as if that would be saying too much. It stands in contrast to what he does present, an exhaustive account of the events of those three years. He doesn't want to tell his own story, it seems -- the story proper finishes long before his birth -- and yet Three Light-Years is entirely his story, as the story of the people that, in every respect, formed him. But his absence then makes for a rather large void -- making for an unusual variation of literary navel-gazing.
       There's a lot to admire about Three Light-Years, including its patience with its characters, built up in conversations and their being observed so closely. Yet much also feel incomplete, with gaps not filled in and background only selectively presented. Admirably, Canobbio's is an anything-but-conventional but quite convincing relationship novel, with his characters' realistic flaws openly displayed. But there's also a price for that close-up view, with too little variation in the scenes retold from different perspectives and the focus not always on the matters and people the reader might be most interested in, and ultimately Three Light-Years does drag along -- and leaves one with a feeling of it offering both too much and too little.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 September 2014

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Three Light-Years: Reviews: Other books by Andrea Canobbio under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Andrea Canobbio was born in 1962. He is an editor an Einaudi.

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© 2014-2021 the complete review

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