Heaven and Earth (Divorare il cielo, 2018) is a highly enjoyable novel, convincingly and smoothly translated by Anne Milano Appel. Spanning twenty years and the anguished love affair between Teresa and Bern, some of it takes place in the dark recent days when Puglia’s olive trees were attacked by a beetle that reduced the landscape to an apocalyptic vision of the planet’s end. Giordano is especially good on the textures, smells, heat and colours of the Italian south, where almost the whole novel is set, the herbs that scent the air, the rocky terrain on which little grows. These stay long in the mind, as does the way he writes about the obsessiveness of love, the way it dominates and distorts and the self-delusions and fantasies it gives rise to. Puglia’s scorched earth and, later in the novel, the craters and caverns of Iceland become metaphors for a plot that is both touching and sad, violent and uncomfortable.
The plot is deftly handled, moving from a secretive steamy teenage romance in Speziale to a cave in Iceland – taking in fringe eco-activism and a doomed attempt to conceive a child along the way. What links them, aside from the dreamy lyricism of the prose (“the foam-slick rocks, the silent sea, and, all around, the mercilessly bright night of the South”) is Bern’s tortured grappling with his faith. Muddying Teresa’s understanding of Bern and his demons is the doubt, first raised by her grandmother, that you can ever truly know another person. Teresa, on hearing Tommaso’s account, realises that their experiences coexist: “Not one story, but two, I kept telling myself, both real… Two versions like the opposite edges of a box, impossible to see together, except with the imagination.” Bern is a different man to each of the friends, his heart “a convoluted rabbit warren, full of tortuous burrows, one for each of us”.