Who’s read I’m Not Scared by Niccolò Ammaniti? If you have, then we know you’ve been waiting on tenterhooks for Anna to come out.
Niccolò Ammaniti’s latest amazing book follows the fiercely brave Anna, a young teenager who is charged with protecting her younger brother Astor following the death of their mother. When Astor is kidnapped by a gang of children, Anna is forced to abandon the security of their cottage and travel through the ruins of the abandoned cities and into the vast and dangerous countryside to bring him safely home.
Did we mention that ALL the adults are dead?
Did we mention that once you reach adolescence you die from the same disease that killed the adults?
Did we mention that Anna is THIRTEEN?
Read the below extract and then just try to stop thinking about the book and what happens next:
He was three, maybe four years old. He sat quietly on a small synthetic leather armchair, chin bent over his green T-shirt, jeans turned up over his trainers. In one hand he held a wooden train which hung down between his legs like a rosary.
On the other side of the room the woman lying on the bed might have been anywhere between thirty and forty. Her arm, covered with red blotches and dark scabs, was attached to an empty drip. The virus had reduced her to a panting skeleton covered with lumpy dry skin, but it hadn’t succeeded in robbing her of all her beauty, which showed in the form of her cheekbones and her turned-up nose.
The little boy raised his head and looked at her, grasped one arm of the chair, climbed down and walked over to the bed with the train in his hand.
She didn’t notice him. Her eyes, sunken in two dark wells, stared at the ceiling.
He toyed with a button on the dirty pillow. His fair hair covered his forehead; in the sunlight that filtered through the white curtains it looked like nylon thread.
Suddenly the woman rose up on her elbows, arching her back as if her soul was being torn from her body, clutched the sheets in her fists and then fell back, coughing convulsively. She tried to swallow air, stretching her arms and legs. Then her face relaxed, her lips parted and she died with her eyes open.
Gently the little boy took hold of her hand and tugged at her forefinger. He whispered: ‘Mama? Mama?’ He put the train on her chest and ran it over the folds in the sheet. He touched the blood-caked plaster which hid the needle of the drip. Finally he went out of the room.
The corridor was dimly lit. The beep beep of a medical device came from somewhere or other.
He passed the corpse of a fat man crumpled up on the floor beside a wheeled stretcher. Forehead against the floor, one leg bent in an unnatural position. The light blue edges of his smock had pulled apart, revealing a greyish-purple back.
The little boy staggered on uncertainly, as if he couldn’t control his legs. On another stretcher, near a poster about breast cancer screening, and a photograph of Liège featuring St Paul’s Cathedral, lay the body of an old woman.
He walked under a crackling neon light. A boy in a nightgown and foam-rubber slippers had died in the doorway of a long ward, one arm forward, the fingers contracted into a claw, as if he were trying to stop himself being sucked down into a whirlpool.
At the end of the corridor the darkness struggled with gleams of sunlight that entered through the doors at the hospital entrance.
The little boy stopped. To his left were the stairs, the lifts and reception. Behind the steel counter were PC monitors overturned on desks and a glass screen shattered into thousands of little cubes.
He dropped the train and ran towards the exit. He closed his eyes, stretched out his arms and pushed the big doors, disappearing into the light.
Outside, beyond the steps, beyond the red and white plastic ribbons, were the outlines of police cars, ambulances, fire engines.
Somebody shouted: ‘A kid. There’s a kid …’
The little boy covered his face with his hands. An ungainly figure ran towards him, blotting out the sun.
The little boy just had time to see that the man was encased in a thick yellow plastic suit. Then he was snatched up and carried away.
Four years later...
Anna ran along the autostrada, holding the straps of the rucksack that was bouncing on her back. Now and then she turned her head to look back.
The dogs were still there. One behind the other, in single file. Six or seven of them. A couple, in worse shape than the others, had dropped out, but the big black one in front was getting closer.
She’d spotted them two hours before at the bottom of a burnt field, appearing and disappearing among dark rocks and blackened trunks of olive trees, but hadn’t thought anything of them.
This wasn’t the first time she’d been followed by a pack of wild dogs. They usually kept up the chase for a while, then tired and wandered off.
She liked to count as she walked. How many steps it took to cover a kilometre, the number of blue cars and red cars, the number of flyovers.
Then the dogs had reappeared.
Desperate creatures, adrift in a sea of ash. She’d come across dozens like them, with mangy coats, clumps of ticks hanging from their ears, protruding ribs. They’d fight savagely over the remains of a rabbit. The summer fires had burnt the lowlands and there was virtually nothing left to eat.
She passed a queue of cars with smashed windows. Weeds and wheat grew around their ash-covered carcasses.
The sirocco had driven the flames right down to the sea, leaving a desert behind it. The asphalt strip of the A29, which linked Palermo to Mazara del Vallo, cut across a dead expanse out of which rose blackened stumps of palm trees and a few plumes of smoke. To the left, beyond what was left of Castellammare del Golfo, a segment of grey sea merged with the sky. To the right, a line of low dark hills floated on the plain like distant islands.
The road was blocked by an overturned lorry. Its trailer had smashed into the central reservation, scattering basins, bidets, toilet bowls and shards of white ceramic over dozens of metres. She ran straight through the debris.
Her right ankle was hurting. In Alcamo she’d kicked open the door of a grocery shop.
To think that, until the dogs’ appearance, everything had been going fine.
She’d left home when it was still dark. From time to time she was forced to go further afield in search of food. Previously it had been easy: you only had to go to Castellammare and you found what you wanted. But the fires had complicated everything. She’d been walking for three hours under the sun as it rose in a pale cloudless sky. The summer was long past, but the heat wouldn’t let up. The wind, after starting the fire, had vanished, as if this part of creation no longer held any interest for it.
In a garden centre, next to a crater left by the explosion of a petrol pump, she’d found a crate full of food under some dusty tarpaulins.
In her rucksack she had six cans of Cirio beans, four cans of Graziella tomatoes, a bottle of Amaro Lucano, a large tube of Nestlé condensed milk, a bag of rusks, which were broken, but would still make a good meal soaked in water, and a half-kilo vacuum pack of pancetta. She hadn’t been able to resist that; she’d eaten the pancetta immediately, in silence, sitting on some bags of compost heaped up on the floor, which was covered with mouse droppings. It was as tough as leather, and so salty it had burnt her mouth.
The black dog was gaining ground.
Anna speeded up, her heart pumping in time with her steps. She couldn’t keep this up much longer. She was going to have to stop and face her pursuers. Oh for a knife. As a rule she always carried one with her, but she’d forgotten to pack one that morning, and had gone out with an empty rucksack and a bottle of water.
The sun was only four inches above the horizon – an orange ball trapped in purple drool. Soon to be swallowed up by the plain. On the other side, the moon, as thin as a fingernail.
She looked back.
He was still there. The other dogs had gradually dropped away. Not him. He hadn’t closed on her over the last kilometre. But she was running flat out; he was just loping along.
Waiting for darkness before he attacked? Surely not. Dogs didn’t plan so rationally, did they? Whatever: she wouldn’t be able to keep this up until nightfall. The pain in her ankle had now increased and spread to her calf.
She passed a green sign. Five kilometres to Castellammare. The white line between the lanes provided a sure guide to concentrate on. The only sounds were her breathing and her feet hitting the asphalt. No wind, no birdsong, no chirping of crickets or cicadas.
Passing another car, she was tempted to get in and rest, but thought better of it. What about dropping the rusks on the road for the dog to eat? Or climbing over the fence at the side of the road? No, the mesh was too tight, and there didn’t seem to be any breaks in it she could slip through.
Or the central reservation on the other side? Here some oleanders had survived the fire. Their branches hung down, heavy with pink flowers, their pungent scent mingling with the smell of burnt wood.
The partition was high.
But you’re the kangaroo.
That was the nickname Signorina Pini, her old gym teacher, had given her, because she could jump higher than the boys. Anna didn’t like it; kangaroos have long floppy ears. She’d have preferred to be associated with the leopard, a far more elegant jumper.
Hurling the rucksack over the bushes, she took a short run-up, used the concrete kerb as a springboard and jumped through the branches onto the other side.
She retrieved the rucksack and counted up to ten, panting. Then she punched the air, flashing her teeth in a full smile, a rare event for her.
She limped on. If only she could find some way of getting over the fence on this side of the road, she’d be safe.
Beyond the fence was a steep slope down to a narrow road which ran parallel to the autostrada. Not the best place to climb over with a swollen ankle. She slipped off the rucksack and looked back.
She saw the dog leap through the oleanders and come galloping down the road.
He wasn’t black at all; he was white, his coat covered with ash. The tip of one of his ears was missing. And he was huge: the biggest dog she’d ever seen.
And if you don’t get moving he’s going to eat you.
She grabbed the mesh of the fence to climb up, but was paralysed by fear. She turned round and slid down onto the road.
The dog raced down the last few metres of the autostrada and jumped over the guardrail and ditch. Then he jumped on her – all forty stinking kilos of him.
Anna stuck out her elbow, aiming at the dog’s ribs. He collapsed in a heap. She stood up.
He lay there, an almost human astonishment in his eyes.
She picked up the rucksack and hit him on the head, on the neck, then on the head again. He yelped, struggling to get to his feet. Anna swung round full circle like a hammer-thrower, but the strap of the rucksack broke, she lost her balance and put out her foot to steady herself, but her sore ankle couldn’t take the weight and she fell to the ground.
They lay there for a moment, looking at each other, then the dog sprang at her, snarling.
Raising her good foot, Anna rammed it into his chest, throwing him back against the guardrail.
He fell down on his side, panting, his long tongue curled under his nose, his eyes narrowed.
As he tried to get up, she looked around for a stone or a stick to hit him with, but saw nothing but burnt paper, plastic bags and crushed cans.
‘Why don’t you leave me alone?’ she shouted, getting to her feet. ‘What have I done to you?’
The dog stared at her, baring his teeth and growling.
She stumbled away in a daze, vaguely aware of oleanders, a dark sky and the blackened roofless shell of a farmhouse. After a while she stopped and looked back.
He was following her.
She came to a blue estate car. Its front was crushed, the rear window had lost its glass and the driver’s door was open. She slipped inside and tried to close the door, but it wouldn’t move. She pulled with both hands. The door creaked shut, but bounced back off the rusty lock. She pulled again, but it still wouldn’t close, so she wrapped the safety belt around the handle to hold it. Laying her head against the steering wheel, she sat there with her eyes closed, breathing in the smell of bird droppings.
On the passenger’s seat beside her was a skeleton covered in white guano. The shrivelled remains of a Moncler quilted jacket had fused with the covering of the seat. Feathers and yellow ribs showed through splits in the fabric. The skull hung down on the chest, held up by withered tendons. A pair of high-heeled suede boots covered the feet.
Anna slipped through onto the back seat, climbed into the boot and crawled up to the rear window, hardly daring to look out. There was no sign of the dog.
She curled up beside two suitcases that had been stripped of their contents, crossing her arms over her chest, with her hands under her sweaty armpits. The adrenaline rush had passed and she could barely keep her eyes open. She tried to jam the suitcases into the window frame. One was too small, but she managed to wedge the other one into the gap by pushing it with her feet.
She ran her fingers over her lips. Her eyes fell on a dirty page torn out of a notebook. The first line read, in capital letters: HELP ME, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!
Written by the woman on the front seat, no doubt.
The note said her name was Giovanna Improta and she was dying. She had two children, Ettore and Francesca. They lived on the top floor of Via Re Federico 36, in Palermo. They were only four and five years old and they’d starve to death if they didn’t get help. There were 500 euros in the hall cupboard.
Anna tossed the piece of paper aside, leaned her head against the side window and closed her eyes.
She woke up abruptly, surrounded by darkness and silence. It was a few seconds before she could remember where she was. She badly needed a pee, but didn’t dare leave the car. She’d be defenceless – and blind: there was no moon.
Better to do it in the boot and move over onto the back seat. She unbuttoned her shorts. As she pulled them down, a sudden noise took her breath away. The sound of dogs sniffing. She put her hand over her mouth, trying not to breathe, shake, or even move her tongue.
Dogs’ claws scratched on the bodywork, and the car lurched.
Her bladder relaxed and warm liquid slid between her thighs, soaking the carpet under her buttocks.
She started silently praying for help, to no one in particular.
The dogs were fighting among themselves, circling the car, their claws clicking on the asphalt.
She imagined thousands of them surrounding the car, a carpet of fur stretching as far as the sea and the mountains, enveloping the whole planet.
She clamped her hands over her ears. Think about gelato. Like big, sweet, multicoloured hailstones. You used to choose the flavours you wanted and they’d scoop them out into a cone for you. She remembered one visit to the ice-cream stall in the private beach area, ‘The Mermaids’. Peering through the glass top of the refrigerator, she’d decided on ‘chocolate and lemon’.
Her mother had grimaced. ‘Ugh!’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Those flavours don’t go together.’
‘Can I have them anyway?’
‘Oh, all right, then. You’d better eat them, though!’
So she’d gone to the beach with her gelato and sat by the water’s edge, while the seagulls strutted along, one behind the other.
Until the fire came, it had still been possible to find other sweet things. Mars bars, flapjacks, Bountys, boxes of chocolates. Usually dry, mouldy or nibbled by mice, though sometimes, if you were lucky, you’d find them in good condition. But it wasn’t the same as ice cream. Cold things had disappeared with the Grown-ups.
She took her hands away from her ears. The dogs had gone.
It was that phase of dawn when night and day have equal weight and things seem larger than they really are. A milk-white band lay across the horizon. The wind rustled between ears of wheat spared by the fire.
Anna climbed out of the car and stretched. Her ankle was numb, but less painful after the rest.
The road unreeled in front of her like a strip of liquorice. The asphalt around the car was spattered with pawprints. Fifty metres away, something lay on the white line between the lanes.
At first it looked like her rucksack, then a tyre, then a heap of rags. Then the rags rose up and turned into a dog.
Anna is a riveting and fascinating read that you won’t be able to put down. And yes, you’d better get yourself a copy as soon as you can because you’re not going to be able to stop thinking about what’s going to happen with the dog.
Anna by Niccolò Ammaniti is available now at all good bookshops, on the Text website and in ebook.
Until next time,