Sanctuary by Luca D’Andrea
Translated by Howard Curtis and Katherine Gregor
While I did enjoy reading this new Italian psycho-thriller, it turned out to be rather a different animal to what I’d expected from the blurb. Right from the beginning there is a different edge to it:
Two light knocks and these words: Nibble, nibble, little mouse! Who is nibbling at my house?
Marlene, twenty-two years old, one metre sixty, maybe a little more, eyes a melancholy blue, a beauty spot at the edge of her smile, undoubtedly beautiful and undoubtedly scared, looked at her reflection in the steel of the safe and felt stupid. Metal, not gingerbread like in the fairy tale. And not a witch in sight.
Set a few decades ago in the Italian Tyrol on the border with Germany, Sanctuary begins with a local gangster’s trophy wife deciding to flee from her husband to, we presume, her lover. She takes her treasured book of Grimm’s fairy tales and the bag of sapphires from their safe, and off she drives into the snowy mountains. Of course she crashes. So far, so normal thriller trope, even with the fairy tale reference.
When Herr Wegener, her husband, who had been out drinking with his men as usual on a Friday evening discovers that Marlene and the stones (which were to be part of a huge deal to buy him into a bigger gang – the ‘Consortium’) are gone he is in despair. It’s not long before the Consortium find out, and they suggest another way for him to prove himself to them: to take out a contract on his wife – they suggest he calls a particular hitman, known as ‘The Trusted Man’.
He had pictured him differently.
The hitmen he had met all looked contemptuous. They were predators who bore the marks of their murders. They knew it and were proud of it.
The Trusted Man was handsome. As handsome as a Hollywood actor. Warren Beatty in “Bonnie and Clyde”, Herr Wegener thought, that was who he looked like. The Trusted Man’s eyes reminded him of the crucifix in the little church where his mother would take him to pray. Pure eyes with a hint of suffering, an underlying pain.
No, not suffering. Compassion. There was compassion in the Trusted Man’s eyes.
Once engaged, the contract cannot be negated. The Trusted Man makes absolutely sure that is what Herr Wegener wants before asking him to confirm the target’s name. He is the most unique assassin I’ve encountered since Killing Eve‘s Villanelle!
Marlene is rescued by Simon Keller, who lives alone with his pigs in a maso, high in the mountains. The nearest village is miles away, and the locals regard Simon as mad, like his father before him. Simon does nothing to change that image, living frugally, hunting, carving wooden toys, etc. Marlene, who is descended from mountain folk, once recovered, feels safe with Simon who looks after her, confident that no-one knows where she is for now. Essentially snowed in, once the weather improves she will leave for the border as originally planned.
So far, so normal thriller, reinforced by yet another strand following the local police investigations too, but then things start to take a more surreal edge. What started off as gangster novel takes on a dual psychological bent. Firstly the strange and persistent hitman gets on the case. Secondly, we start to get to know Simon and the story of his family led by his father, the bible-bashing Voter Luis, and the effect that had on him. Marlene, lulled into a sense of safety, should have paid more attention to her beloved fairy tales.
Sanctuary wasn’t what I expected at all, but was strangely compelling to read, especially with elements from the bible and the Brother Grimm of course woven in. As the pages sped by, it got darker and darker and increasingly suspenseful, and yes, nasty too with some interesting twists and an appropriate ending! Not a straight-forward psychological thriller at all. At first I felt there were too many different tropes in play, too many different threads – but each of the main characters has a very different pathway through their own stories in this liminal region of Italy. It all came together in the end! I may well go back to read his first, The Mountain. (8/10)