cover image What We Don't Know about Children

What We Don't Know about Children

Simona Vinci. Alfred A. Knopf, $21 (176pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40411-5

Winner of Italy's Elsa Morente Prize for Best First Novel, this compact story is a perversely compulsive read in the tradition of Bataille's Story of the Eye and Duras's The Lover. In Bologna one summer, two teenage boys and three preadolescents begin an innocent exploration of their sexuality. Their play starts with youthful curiosity, devoid of passion, in an abandoned shed on the outskirts of town. Fifteen-year-old Mirko is the leader, the only one with an inkling of adult desires. The others--14-year-old Luca, and Matteo, Greta and Martina, all 10 years old--are still unformed, innocent. With a sort of primal inquisitiveness, they explore their bodies and the different sensations they are able to arouse in each other, creating their own universe with its own rules. Soon, however, the adult world infiltrates as they acquire porno magazines, and the children move on to disturbing sexual extremes. Opening with a quote from Duras, Vinci carries on in Duras-like prose, sensual and intimate but eerily flat, preternaturally wise yet free of moral inflections. The trappings of childhood--brightly colored cereal boxes, school notebooks, rollerblades--are presented alongside garish magazine spreads and blunt descriptions of sexual acts. The simple language and confident pace give no indication of the shockingly violent event at the center of this story, but Vinci's masterful sense of foreboding creates an intense anticipation of a crime that unravels as slowly and transparently as a tainted dream. Like Bataille, Vinci has created a controversial and frightening work that exposes the dark side of the erotic. However, its touch of sensationalism lacks Bataille's psychological subtlety and will leave readers bristling more at the brute shock of the tale than at its indictment of a perverse society. (June)