By Paolo Giordano (Translated from Italian by Shaun Whiteside)
A prime number is of course indivisible by anything other than one and itself. Giordano describes them as numbers standing aloof and apart from the rest, their tracks running parallel to but never meeting the other prime numbers. And in his debut novel, he creates two characters, Alice and Mattia, investing in them the same characteristics of prime numbers – the apartness, the solitude, the parallel tracks.
Alice and Mattia are severely damaged people. Alice, who never gets over a skiing accident as a child that leaves her scarred and limping, grows up anorexic and unable to fit into a normal world. Mattia, who leaves his retarded identical twin sister in a park, out of a childhood fear of embarrassment, loses her forever. He is a mathematical genius, but this childhood trauma never leaves him, and he grows up hurting himself with knives and burns, unable to fit into any semblance of a normal life.
Alice and Mattia find each other in adolescence and they recognize in each other the similarities of damage. Similarities that ensure a connection that stays with them through their lives. Yet, they spend their lives on parallel tracks, never able to take that special connection towards anything more meaningful than friendship. They grow up, people fall in love with them, people they are never able to love back enough as they attempt to lead lives like other people. Yet it only results in each of them hurting everyone who attempts to get close, never able to let go of their aloofness in the universe.
It is a savagely bleak book. But there is a searing, haunting quality to it that keeps you turning the pages, desperately wanting redemption for Alice and Mattia, even though you know they are too far gone for it to really happen. The language is spare, yet has a lyrical quality to it. “Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, two twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough really to touch one another.” Or describing Mattia’s strangeness, Giordano writes, “He wanted to tell her that he liked studying because you can do it on your own, because all the things you study are already dead, cold and chewed-over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbooks were all the same temperature, that they leave you time to choose, that they never hurt you and that you can’t hurt them either. But he said nothing.” Straightforward writing, yet it leaves a mark.
Paolo Giordano is a mathematician, who wrote this very successful book before he turned 30. And he turns out to be gorgeous; in the way Italian men are meant to be. Some people seem to have all the luck. But if it’s luck that churns out such a gem of a book, I am not complaining.