The Old Ways: A Review of Never the Wind, by Francesco Dimitri

            Few stories are more timeless than the coming-of-age tale, a genre which never ceases to be popular in the public consciousness.  These stories tend to feature younger characters, either pre-teens or teenagers, and follow them as they learn life lessons and mature throughout the course of the story.  It is not so much about becoming an adult by the end of the story as it is stories about the changes we all experience when we are younger.  There comes a time in everyone’s life when they gain a certain understanding about the world, commonly referred to as the loss of innocence. Children learning that their parents are not infallible, or teenagers learning that the world is vastly more complicated than they ever believed.  Many times, coming-of-age tales show the main character developing their personality and becoming their own person, outside of the projections of their parents.  While these stories may feature young characters, they are not normally considered YA fiction, as the target audience tends to be adults rather than other teenagers.  There is an element of nostalgia in reading a coming-of-age story, and thinking back to when you were the age of the characters.

            Never the Wind is the second English language novel by Italian author Francesco Dimitri, and his follow-up to 2018’s excellent The Book of Hidden Things.  He again returns to the seaside hills and fields of rural Puglia, the heel to Italy’s boot, and his birthplace.  Today, Puglia is becoming more and more well known as a potential tourist destination.  A part of Italy which has mostly survived untouched by modernization, full of good food, better wine, and pristine beaches.  However, this new novel takes us back in time to the Puglia of 1996, when Puglia was a barely registered region on the map.  Never the Wind is a standalone novel, but it does seemingly take place in the same world as The Book of Hidden Things, with the main character mentioning Casalfranco and a child named Art from that town.  Luca himself is the main and only point-of-view character, with the book being told by him as an adult looking back on his thirteen-year-old self.  Few people understand rural Italy and Puglia more than Dimitri, and the region really does feel alive in these pages, filtered through Luca’s words.  His descriptions of the sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of the beaches and vineyards are incredibly vivid and make me want to return to the origin of my family.  The novel follows Luca’s first summer as a full-time resident in Puglia after his parents shipped the whole family to an old masseria (a traditional, fortified, stone farmhouse) with the intent of renovating it.  Luca tells the story of adjusting to his new home and town, difficult enough as it is without an added complication: Luca is blind.

            Before the start of the novel, Luca’s grandfather passed away.  This is not presented as a mystery or something that is a major part of the plot, except for what his death leaves behind.  A connection to Puglia, a family history tied to the land and other families, as well as the old Masseria del Vento, which was willed to both Luca’s mother and his uncle, her brother.  When we first meet him in his recollection, his parents have already bought out his uncle to become sole owners and have contracted the best mason in the nearby town, Portodimare, to renovate the house.  All of this is filtered through the eyes of an adult Luca, now wiser and more knowledgeable than his thirteen-year-old self, capable of seeing the foolishness of his parents’ endeavor.  However, his narration makes is clear that he wants readers to understood how he felt and saw the world back then, and Dimitri’s writing does a wonderful job of balancing these two competing head spaces.  We learn that his parents both retired from their apparently well-paying jobs to sink all of their time and money into working on the house, creating an endless source of tension between them and Luca’s older brother, Ferdi.  According to Luca, his parents also intend to turn the Masseria del Vento into something that will attract tourists to the region, commercializing the countryside.  While tourism can bring money in, it can come at the cost of losing what makes a part of the world unique and special.  Puglia today is, inevitably, becoming more of a tourist destination, though thankfully it is nowhere near as popular as places like Tuscany. 

            It is easy to tell that Dimitri put in the work to research blindness and how blind people actually live their lives, rather than relying on half-formed notions or depictions in other fiction, even without reading the Toasts at the end of the novel.  Luca’s blindness is never ignored, it is never set aside for the story.  It is a constant presence on the page, and the book is much better for its portrayal.  Luca describes how he uses his cane to find landmarks or avoid obstacles, he talks candidly about the loss of certain social skills, and his early trials involve simply learning to find his way around the masseria on his own.  He is an honest narrator, frankly telling readers how hard his life has becoming since losing his sight the previous year.  The book opens with him recalling the night where he lay in bed, needing to use the bathroom, but knowing that simply finding the bathroom on his own in the middle of home renovations would be a Herculean task.  As the story progresses and Luca spends more time in the masseria and surrounding countryside, he does learn how to get around on his own through the use of landmarks, mental timers, and memorizing routes.  Learning an area may take him longer than a sighted person, but it is far from impossible, even as most characters seemingly treat him as a sad story rather than a real person.  Being sighted, it is difficult to imagine one’s life without your sight.  Never knowing when someone is addressing you or someone else in the room, or not expecting the touch of another unless they explicitly tell you they are about to touch you.  Luca shares his world with readers, and does not hide the reality of his life.

            However, the plot of the novel is not necessarily, or not only, about his blindness.  No discussion of Never the Wind is complete without the other main character, someone just as important to the story as Luca: Ada Guadalupi.  We meet Ada early in the novel, a girl Luca’s age from the neighboring Guadalupi family who was friendly with Luca’s grandfather, even if the adults in the two families did not get along.  While we see Ada through Luca’s eyes, Dimitri and the novel never treat her as anything less than a real person.  Too often, coming-of-age stories told from a male perspective treat the female main characters as an object of desire for the male main character.  While Luca certainly finds himself drawn to Ada, their friendship is the cornerstone of the book, with their mutual care and attempts to understand each other forming the bulk of the plot.  Luca spends the vast majority of the novel with her or thinking about her, and her absence during certain segments is certainly felt.  Initially, Ada comes across as rebellious and independent, making fun of Luca, although never for being blind.  However, Luca’s descriptions of her show just how deep their friendship becomes over the course of the story.  Rather than treating him as a sad story to tell, like the adults do, she treats like a real, complete human being.  She also very quickly learns how to act in a way that is considerate to his blindness without making it a big deal.  Small things, like asking his consent before holding his arm to lead him or warning him when a step is coming up.  Ada is deeply entwined with the plot of Never the Wind, but learning about her life is also the plot itself. 

            Like The Book of Hidden Things before it, there is a hint of a supernatural presence in Never the Wind.  However, this time, Dimitri makes it much more explicit.  Rather than second-hand tales and rumors of supernatural occurrences, Luca has a series of first-hand experiences, although he is never able to gain a perfect understanding of what is happening due to his blindness.  The first time he ventures out in the Masseria del Vento’s vineyard on his own, he encounters a being he dubs The Wandered.  Accompanied by a feral small a tap tap, The Wanderer is something both ancient and powerful, capable of changing the landscape around Luca and seemingly moving him through the countryside.  While this appears to be an original creation of Dimitri for the story, Puglia is an incredibly old region full of legend of folklore, despite, or maybe because of, its dedication to Catholicism.  Catholics take their spiritualism seriously, praying to a vast network of individual saints, aside from just Jesus and God.  This continues the lineage of polytheistic religions that worshipped different gods or spirits when different things were needed, although Catholics will insist it is entirely different.  Puglia is also the home of the tarantella, a traditional dance created as a cure to tarantism, a form of hysteria believed to be caused by the bite of the wolf spider, the first spider to be called tarantula.  It is not far fetched to believe there is far stranger folklore in Puglia forgotten to time and change.  A constant refrain in the book, where which the ovel gains its title, is a phrase passed down in the Saracino family: Praise God, never the wind.  Which only begs the question what happens if you praise the wind?

             Even though Never the Wind is an English language novel, Dimitri brings a distinctly Italian style and culture to his writing.  Not only in the choice of setting, which he deeply understands, but also in the focus of the novel and the portrayal of its characters.  He knows how to show readers the real Italy, not the tourist version created as marketing.  However, his skill is such that a book deeply steeped in Pugliese culture is both relatable and understandable to any reader coming in.  Luca is a thoroughly engaging character and never fails to keep interest in the story he is telling.  Never the Wind is a true coming-of-age story, focusing on relationships and character growth, with an adult narrator who maintains a balance between the wisdom of adulthood and the knowledge possessed by children.  But this is not a rushed book, it takes its time and asks readers to slow down, embracing the story as it comes your way.  Francesco Dimitri’s writing never fails to impress, and he is sure to continue telling stories that encourage both thoughtfulness and entertainment.  The Book of Hidden Things and Never the Wind are simply the start of a new journey.

Never the Wind can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 15 days

Next on the List: Wrath Goddess Sing, by Maya Deane

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