‘Sundered from the world in some way’ – The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a spare and delicate story about friendship and loss and loneliness; it’s almost constantly melancholic and quite often tragic, but it’s also got a thread of hope and possibility running through it that makes it a deeply moving read.

After a bad childhood skiing accident, Alice is left scarred and with a limp; she grows up anorexic and secretive, the crippled girl at school, and her only real friendship is with the equally damaged and isolated Mattia.  A mathematical genius, Mattia abandoned his disabled twin sister in a park on his way to a classmate’s birthday party; after her disappearance he becomes a withdrawn and silent teenager who cuts himself with knives and detaches himself from everything but his studies.  Both characters are estranged from their parents and find it difficult to form relationships; thrust together unexpectedly at a high school party, Alice and Mattia find solace in a muted and idiosyncratic friendship.  The novel traces out the story of their lives, from childhood through to university and beyond, as Mattia emigrates and Alice embarks on a loveless marriage.  A chance encounter with a woman who may or may not be Mattia’s long-lost sister prompts Alice to call her friend home – and their both futures then hang in the balance.  

The author, Paolo Giordano, is a particle physicist by day, and a novelist by night; published when he was  only twenty-six, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is an accomplished debut, and it’s already won Italy’s version of the Man Booker, the Premio Strega award.  If that’s not depressing enough, it’s also an engaging and likeable text, despite the deep unhappiness of pretty much every character.  He’s set it up as a collection of discrete scenes; the novel reads almost like a series of vignettes out of which the reader must construct the whole story.  The immediacy of the prose – the near lack of obtrusive back-story – plunges the reader directly into this fragile and lonesome world.  There’s no filler here.  Giordano isn’t fabricating a mystery or hinting at undiscovered trauma – the tragedies of these characters’ lives are presented in the opening chapters, and the reader then acts as witness to the subsequent unravelling of their lives.

Giordano’s day job, his mathematical bent, is there in the title; Mattia is obsessed with prime numbers, and he explains how some of them exist in pairs, separated numerically only by one other number – this is how he sees himself and Alice: stuck in parallel tracks, close but unable to touch.  The distance between people is the novel’s major concern – every character is shown to be sundered from the world in some way.    Giordano’s characterisation is sharp and deft – even the most minor character comes to life in his quick sketches.  Mattia’s only other school-friend, Denis, struggles with his homosexuality; Nadia, Mattia’s potential love-interest, sees herself facing an abyss of loneliness after the breakdown of her marriage; Alice’s family’s housekeeper, Soledad, pretends to the world that she is a widow, unable to admit that her husband walked out on her. Casting a shadow over the whole is Mattia’s lost sister, Michela; unable to communicate, trapped speechless inside her own body, Michela’s disappearance foreshadows the way her brother will find himself set apart from the world around him.

If I were to nit-pick, I’d say that the novel’s only downfall was in a certain mannered quality to the prose every now and then.  Sentences like ‘That evening, getting up from the table, she had crossed the invisible boundary beyond which things start working for themselves’ or ‘Against certain parts of yourself you remain powerless, she thought to herself, as she regressed pleasurably to the time when she was a girl’ – these strike me as a little too authorial, too self-conscious for the characters.  The novel veers now and then towards a self-conscious literariness that detracts from the strong emotions on display.  There’s also a tendency to switch viewpoints within a section that can be occasionally disconcerting, wrenching the reader from one character’s experience to another’s without warning.

Any Cop?: This is a slow-paced read – it builds a sense of damage and deep sadness out of an accumulation of every-day scenes and minor events.  If you’re looking for energetic thrills or luscious descriptive passages, this won’t satisfy you, but if you like your fiction understated and domestic, then you should enjoy this – it’s discreet, but deep, and doesn’t jump to quick-fix conclusions or solutions.   Thumbs up.

Valerie O’Riordan

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