The Eight Mountains: Paolo Cognetti

★★★½

Mountains exert a powerful fascination on the modern mind. They offer freedom, escape, wilderness, the shrugging-off of civilisation. They promise an elemental battle between humanity and nature. And they hold out the prospect of possession: peaks to be claimed and conquered. In this restrained and elegant novel, Paolo Cognetti tells the story of Pietro, a young boy from Milan whose life will be shaped by a childhood friendship formed in the high valleys of the Italian Alps. A tale of obsession, of fathers and sons, of friendship and of belonging, this is a poignant glimpse of a fading world.

Pietro’s parents met through a shared love of climbing and he grows up surrounded by the folklore of the mountains. It’s only during their alpine holidays that his difficult, short-tempered father seems to relax, as if returning to his natural habitat, and when Pietro is twelve, the family rents a little cabin in the hill-village of Grana. Here, Pietro’s father goes off on epic solo marches up into the mountains, savouring the clarity of the air and the challenges of the nearby glacier; Pietro’s mother turns with contentment to a simple rustic life; and Pietro himself goes out to explore and have fantasy adventures. Here, one day, he encounters Bruno Guglielmina, a local boy who herds his family’s cows and is similarly starved of friendship. From self-conscious beginnings, a close friendship develops: an almost fraternal bond that ties the two boys together.

The years pass, and each summer Pietro’s family returns to Grana. As he grows older, he begins to go walking with his father – and Bruno joins them as often as he can. Cognetti traces the impact of these simple, happy days throughout the boys’ lives, using them as a way to illuminate Pietro’s uneasy relationship with his father and his growing sense of his own place in the world. The book isn’t a narrative so much as a series of vignettes, showing us not only the boys growing into men, and their changing friendship, but also the changes in Grana itself. In emphasising the vast eternity of the mountains, the book illuminates the way that an ancient lifestyle can begin slowly to shift – and then, with the force and suddenness of an avalanche, crumble away.

I’ve seen the book compared to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, but I’m not sure how far I would agree with this – beyond the fact, of course, that it focuses on a long-term Italian friendship. Cognetti’s book is more detached, more dreamlike, a tale of the mountains as much as of the boys themselves. There are times when it seems to drift rather than having the dynamism of Ferrante’s story. Yet it does share that elegiac sense of nostalgia: a picture of an Italy which is all the more moving because we know that it has been lost forever.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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