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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Domenico Starnone

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Trick

Title: Trick
Author: Domenico Starnone
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 196 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Trick - US
Trick - UK
Trick - Canada
Trick - India
Scherzetto - Italia
  • Italian title: Scherzetto
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri

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Our Assessment:

B+ : sharp little story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 19/4/2018 Tim Parks
The NY Times Book Rev. . 20/5/2018 Joseph Luzzi
Sunday Times . 25/2/2018 David Mills
TLS . 21/3/2018 Laura Freeman
The Washington Post . 13/3/2018 M. Roig-Franzia

  From the Reviews:
  • " Bar an occasional stumble, Lahiri leads us through Starnone’s narrative corridors in fluent prose with some resourcefulness. At least in this regard, the reader has nothing to fear. But all the explicit discussion of James and ghosts, of genes and DNA, reflections resumed and repeated in a 20-page appendix that, together with Lahiri’s introduction, pads out this fine novella to novel length, will for many readers seem exactly the kind of energy-sapping intellectualisation that Daniele fears is ruining his drawings." - Tim Parks, The Guardian

  • "Starnone’s protagonist, Daniele Mallarico, left me cold. (...) Trick does contain some resonant passages on the chaos of family dynamics, the challenge of aging and the difficulty of leaving behind a hometown as overwhelming as Naples. But the writing doesn’t go far enough beyond Mallarico’s inner strife, his misgivings about his work as an illustrator and his fear that the rage of his childhood will never dissipate. " - Joseph Luzzi, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Trick is a knotty tale. Mario is sweet, then sinister; Mallarico unreliable, paranoid and out-witted. His imagination plays tricks on him. He sees strange shapes and faces in the walls. Is this old age, the after-effects of an operation, or are there really ghosts and shadows in the rooms ? (...) Trick is a chillingly weird chamber piece -- a very tricksy treat." - Laura Freeman, Times Literary Supplement

  • "In this layered, alternately witty and melancholy story, Mallarico sees shadowy apparitions everywhere when he returns to his childhood home in Naples. (...) What ensues for Mallarico is a running internal dialogue about art, aging, love, infidelity, violence, envy and ambition." - Manuel Roig-Franzia, The Washington Post

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:

       Trick is narrated by artist and illustrator Daniele Mallarico. He has made his home in northern Italy, in Milan, for decades, but reluctantly agrees to venture down to Naples, to the house he grew up in, when his daughter, Betta, asks him to come and to watch his grandson, four-year-old Mario, for a few days while Betta and husband Severio attend an academic conference. The septuagenarian is still recovering from a health scare and struggling with his latest commission -- the illustrations for a fancy edition of Henry James' The Jolly Corner -- and Trick is, like that story, a three-part tale of a return to a former home after a long absence, and the ghosts (in various forms) one encounters. (Trick also has an Appendix, a short illustrated diary-like collection of 'Notes and sketches by Daniele Mallarico (1940-2016), invented for the tale Trick'.)
       Mario is a clever but willful little boy, genuinely pleased to get to spend time with his grandfather but also stubborn in his childish ways. Among the habits his parents haven't been able to drive out of him is the annoying one of lowering a bucket with his toys from the balcony to a neighbor-family down below, leading to repeated arguments about the return of the toys; this continues also when Mario's parents are away, and Daniele has to deal with it. The old man has work to get to -- those illustrations -- but also lets Mario have his way a lot -- not insisting he go to nursery school, for example, even though that would give him a few more hours peace every day. Daniele alternates between leaving Mario to his own devices, and trying to accommodate and play along with him; preöccupied with his own thoughts, the young boy is a bit of distracting (and exhausting) thorn in his side, but Daniele does try to dutifully keep him entertained and busy.
       Daniele quickly sees that there's considerable tension between his daughter and her husband -- indeed, that: "the conference in Cagliari was, above all, a prime opportunity for Betta and Severio to evade the eyes and ears of their child and fight hard". As Daniele notes, the tensions -- and arguments -- are impossible not to notice, but Mario is already good at a kind of avoidance, clinging to a sense of normality in routines and the set order of his own small life -- which he tries to pull his grandfather into.
       Despite having grown up in Naples, Daniele hardly feels at home here any longer. He's been away too long -- to the extent that he's lost his feel for the local sense of language and customs, still recognizing them, but unable to be part of it any longer. So also, for example:

I no longer knew how to be either aggressive or polite according to Neapolitan standards.
       But he's feeling old and apart generally: the young editor who critiqued the first two illustrations he sent in annoys him -- in no small part as yet another sign that he's lost touch with the contemporary world, and contemporary expectations. He's touchy, too, whether the criticism is from his editor, or from his grandson, who finds his illustrations too dark.
       Daniele was a prodigy, and escaped his limited Neapolitan family and background through his art -- but the escape also set him apart. The first great love of his life dumped him because of it:
I'd already begun to shun how I should be, how they'd taught us to be. I drew and painted, and, thanks to that ability, I was pulling away without realizing it. And in pulling away, instead of appealing to her more, I'd become as bothersome as if my skin had erupted in purple welts.
       He's proud of having made a name for himself -- but also realizes that the achievement only means so much: he disappoints his grandson who brags about his famous grandfather to his teacher, only to learn he's not really that famous at all.
       At seventy-five -- and in the town he grew up in, but left behind long ago -- Daniele feels his separation from a bustling world around him all the more acutely. Most of the novel takes place indoors, in the Naples apartment, but even there Daniele feels mostly overwhelmed, whether by his energetic grandson, his own thoughts, or more generally a world that's passing him by at ever greater speeds.
       The story builds to the entirely predictable 'trick' that young Mario plays on Daniele. Part of the point is, of course, that Daniele should have seen this coming -- a mile away, as the reader surely has -- and taken the small precautions that would have prevented it; for someone so worried about Mario playing with the gas or knives, or climbing higher than he should, the lapse that leads to Daniele's predicament is one he really should have been able to avoid. But once he's shut the door on that possibility, Starnone at least nicely spins it out, Daniele now very obviously the odd man out, looking in, truly helpless (despite the various efforts he makes, all promising, but all falling just short, for a variety of reasons). Daniele finds all his present-day concerns, of being an old, tired man with barely a connection to everything around him, made all the more starkly real -- a nice comic-tragic little episode. Though, of course, it's also almost too obvious:
     How fragile I'd become. If, once, I used to believe in each of my gestures, if I used to think that merely a well-conceived stroke of my pencil could split a mountain in two, now even glass overwhelmed me. ] [...] I suddenly felt comical. Here was a seventy-five-year-old man, slovenly, disheveled, pants falling down. He should be minding a child and instead he's incapable of minding himself.
       Trick is a sharp little story, propelled by Daniele's voice -- Starnone capturing the old man's annoyance, confusion, exhaustion, and energy very well -- and the echoes of Henry James' tale. Starnone does spell things out rather clearly -- much of the action, from the interaction with the neighbors to the 'trick' -- feels almost too predictable, but the telling is vigorous enough that it still works quite well. Mario can seem too precocious at times -- and then notably just a bit more immature than he seemed when it would really count -- but on the whole is also a convincing little figure.
       Trick is a strong little story, of an old man and artist haunted by lost pasts, and the inability to find or keep his hold in the present. (For better and worse, this is probably an ideal book-club title.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 March 2018

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Trick: Reviews: Other books by Domenico Starnone under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Domenico Starnone was born in 1943.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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