The Cursed Friend by Beatrice Salvioni review – rebels with a cause

<span>Beatrice Salvioni ‘deftly conveys the superstitions and prejudice of a conservative society’.</span><span>Photograph: PR Image</span>
Beatrice Salvioni ‘deftly conveys the superstitions and prejudice of a conservative society’.Photograph: PR Image

Beatrice Salvioni, who won the 2021 Italo Calvino prize for her short stories, will inevitably be compared to Elena Ferrante, and not solely because of the title of her debut novel. The Cursed Friend, translated by Elena Pala, focuses on an intense friendship between two girls and explores familiar themes of youthful curiosity and female rebellion against a patriarchal society.

It’s set in the mid-1930s in the Italian city of Monza, where 12-year-old Francesca yearns to escape her comfortable middle-class existence. After she starts hanging out with wild, stubborn Maddalena, other avenues open up to her. They spend their days playing truant from school, fishing in the Lambro river and stealing cherries from the local grocer. Their neighbours call Maddalena “the Cursed One”, blaming her for the fatal work injury of her father and tragic death of her younger brother after he fell from a window. But Francesca is drawn to her friend’s passion, loyalty and courage – attributes she lacks.

Despite its dramatic opening, this is a slow burn of a novel

When Mussolini orders the invasion of Ethiopia, Maddalena’s beloved brother Ernesto is called up. Meanwhile her sister Donatella falls pregnant. The father, the son of a local fascist, denies all responsibility, so Maddalena, aided by Francesca, exacts a terrible revenge.

Salvioni deftly conveys the superstition and prejudice of a conservative society, and the inexorable hold of the church. Reflecting on the hypocrisy of the time, Francesca describes the different services held on Christmas Eve: mass at the cathedral was “for those who cared nothing for God, and only worried about making show of their faith… mass in San Gerardino was meant to be listened to, it was for those who really needed the comfort of religion”.

Despite its dramatic opening, this is a slow burn of a novel. Salvioni might not display the flair of Ferrante, but Francesca and Maddalena are vibrant characters for whom we quickly root. Their central relationship and cruel initiation into the world of men is richly imagined. I’m excited to read what she does next.

  • The Cursed Friend by Beatrice Salvioni (translated by Elena Pala) is published by William Collins (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply