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    Dantesque urban fantasy. A gem

    VERDICT: A dantesque urban fantasy for our time. So well written. Haunting. A gem. Let’s be honest: when I first heard of Hell’s Gate from Gallic Books, I was not sure I was going to read it. The reason being a few expressions in the synopsis that usually tell me the book is not for me: “supernatural elements”, “relationship between the living and the dead” (I am a Christian, and do believe in such a relationship, but the way novelists treat it is rarely compatible with my faith), and “a way he could bring his son back from the dead.” On the other hand, the author was Laurent Gaudé, who won the Prix Goncourt for another of his novels, and I have actually never read this author! And I usually do recognize the worth of that French literary award. So I thought I give it a try and go from there. So I started very hesitantly. So much so that at 50% of the book, I still was not sure I was going to continue! And then something clicked, and oh my! There’s no other way to see it: the writing is just excellent. With amazing descriptions of places, activities of drama, of grief, solitude, and slow descent into hell (at all kinds of levels). This is a gem, with passages (starting in chapter 14) that read like a modern retelling of the first book of the Divine Comedy, or come to think about it, maybe the three books actually. You could say this is a dantesque urban fantasy on the connection between heaven and earth with an interesting link to the major earthquake that took place in Italy in 1980. Without spoilers, I will just say it’s about Matteo, his wife Giulana, and their son Filippo. One day, father and son are caught in a shooting in Naples, and the young boy dies. Grief and anger turn into desire of vengeance in the mother, who pushes her husband either to find the killer or bring her back her son. The book alternates between the before and after of what Matteo will try to do. You also have here a wonderful cast of characters who have the most extraordinary conversations and set together on a very special mission: a taxi driver, “a disgraced professor, a transvestite, a mad priest and the easy-going owner of a café”. The priest Don Mazerotti accepts all for confession, including Grace the transvestite (no explicit content) and hence is threatened by Rome to be expelled from his church. Mazerotti will act as the Virgil (cf. The Divine Comedy) of Matteo. Professor Provolone is convinced there are gates to the afterlife, and that “the two worlds are permeable.” There’s also a fascinating view of what Christians call the communion of the saints, and of the Christian prayers for the dead, with opposing forces of memory and oblivion. And the last paragraph is the perfect ending! With only 190 pages, this is a gem you have to read. Don’t fear the “supernatural elements” if they are usually outside your reading comfort zone: they are treated in a unique and fascinating way here. So well done.

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