Twins of tragedy and pain

2009-12-02 00:00

The Solitude of Prime NumbersPaolo GiordanoTranslated by Shaun WhitesideDoubleday Autonomy

THIS first novel by Paulo Giordano, a particle physicist and the youngest winner of Italy’s most prestigious literary­ award, and a best seller in his native Italy, continues to haunt one even after one has finished reading it.

The main characters, Alice and Mattea, grow into lonely but narcissistic adolescence, burdened by unusual childhood trauma and unhappiness that marks them out as different from their peers.

Many adolescents feel troubled and isolated, but Alice’s and Mattea’s distress translate into self-harming behaviours that Giordano’s non-emotive style evokes with a cool clarity. Their stories unfold in chronological chapters that alternate in focus between the two of them, even after they meet and recognise in each other similar wounds. This identification leads to a profound form of mutual trust that continues as they grow into adulthood and after Mattea, a gifted mathematician, moves to a distant country to continue his studies.

Mattea’s preoccupation with numbers and patterns leads him to regard himself and Alice as twin prime numbers, “alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another”. Their relationship is paradoxically intense and remote. All their other relationships, including Alice’s competitive relationship with a popular girl when at school, the quiet support Mattea receives from a gay school friend, troubled relationships with their parents even when Alice’s mother is ill with cancer, and Alice’s marriage to a handsome doctor, all seem strangely insubstantial compared with their own special twinning that is forged through their individual histories of tragedy and pain.

How the demands of adulthood, physical separation and competing interests stress and hone their bond makes riveting reading as the narrative propels the reader to its unpredictable conclusion.

But the book’s haunting power lies in the author’s clear sighted ability to render Alice’s and Mattea’s emotional worlds so that the reader is able to relate to their difficult progress through damage, distress and desire towards some semblance of autonomy.

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