The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi, trans. by Elena Pala

This family saga set in Italy, with one life at its center, is moving, literary, philosophical and multi-layered.

The Hummingbird by Sandro Veronesi (Quiet Chaos; The Force of the Past), translated from the Italian by Elena Pala, is a shape-shifting, multigenerational novel of family, love, loss, joy, change and pain.

When readers meet Marco Carrera, the year is 1999 and he is a 40-year-old ophthalmologist in Rome, about to meet destiny in the form of a psychoanalyst breaking his confidentiality oath. From here, chapters jump back and forth in time from 1960 to 2030. Readers meet the great love of Marco’s life, visit his childhood, witness his marriage and divorce. When he is just a boy, Marco stops growing, remaining small and childlike well into his teenage years: his mother nicknames him “the hummingbird” for his stature, a moniker that will echo into his adulthood. He becomes a father and eventually a grandfather, so that four generations of his family flash kaleidoscopically across these pages; Marco is ever at the novel’s center, however, even as he is accused of holding still through life’s storms. “You can keep still as time flows around you, you can stop it flowing, sometimes you can turn back time, even–just like a hummingbird, you can fly backwards and retrieve lost time.” The novel mimics this movement with its nearly stop-action chronology.

Some chapters take a straight narrative form, others are transcribed conversations, letters, postcards or e-mails. Elena Pala’s translation from the Italian feels perfectly suited to this twisting, many-faceted form, as different voices take the lead. The pieced-together story moves between Rome and a Tuscan coastal town where the Carreras have a vacation home; its characters travel much farther (Spain, Germany, the United States), but Marco’s orbit is limited. Rather, as he keeps still, his family and friends revolve around him.

In these various forms, across time and space, Veronesi refers to numerous other literary voices (a Samuel Beckett epigraph sets the tone) and concepts from ophthalmology, psychotherapy, architecture and design, among other disparate fields. The Hummingbird is clearly an intellectual exercise, but can also be read more simply as a story about a single, deceptively ordinary life: Marco might appear unremarkable at first glance, but he has lived remarkable tragedies and triumphs, which will define him. He is affected by his experiences as if by ocean waves, his life a series of natural forces, or natural disaster. Packed with pathos, humor and tragedy, the novel’s finish is both a quiet goodbye and a crescendo, the only fitting end to such an unobtrusive but resounding life.


This review originally ran in the December 2, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 appointments.

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