Can You Hear Me?

Can You Hear Me?

by Elena Varvello


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A riveting coming-of-age story with the precision of a Hitchcock noir by a masterful new voice in Italian literature.

"Suspenseful and elegiac, as beautiful as it is horrifying." —Karen Dionne

"A densely layered psychological mystery." —Chicago Tribune

"Reads like a collaboration between Daphne du Maurier and Megan Abbott." —The Irish Times

Over the course of one oppressively hot summer in the small town of Ponte, in northern Italy, one family's secrets are revealed and the community is torn apart by a terrible crime.

Sixteen-year-old Elia Furenti lives with his parents in a secluded house, a tight-knit family whose rhythms are dictated by the shifts in his father's emotional state. When the closure of the nearby factory leaves Elia's father without a job, however, home becomes an increasingly fraught environment. With the summer heat pressing down, Elia's father begins to spiral, his moods becoming increasingly dark and erratic, while Elia's mother refuses to acknowledge that anything has changed.

Meanwhile, a forbidden relationship blossoms, as Elia seeks refuge from the silence and tension at home. Events reach a breaking point one moonlit night, when a young woman climbs into a van and is taken into the deep, dark woods . . .

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635060515
Publisher: Mobius
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Elena Varvello was born in Turin, Italy, in 1971. She has published two collections of poetry, Perseveranza è salutare and Atlanti; a collection of short stories, L'Economia delle cose (nominated for the Premio Strega, the Italian equivalent of the Man Booker Prize); and a novel, La Luce Perfetta del Giorno. She teaches creative writing at the Scuola Holden in Turin. Can You Hear Me? is her first novel to be published in English.

Read an Excerpt


I can only imagine those first moments.

She had missed the last bus and was walking on the edge of the road, the bag slamming against her side and her dirty T- shirt, a bruise on her right wrist and sore feet.

It was still warm.

She could've asked Ida for a lift but didn't: she was angry at Simona — over lunch she had squashed the food on the table, spilled fruit juice all over her, yanked her, screaming — and didn't want to see her again.

I have often wondered what she was thinking about. Maybe she was asking herself what someone like her was doing in a job like that, one that required infinite amounts of patience. A depressing place, in the middle of the woods. Maybe she just looked around her, the thorn bushes and crisscrossing trees, the restaurant on the day it's closed with its empty parking lot, the roof of a house farther down the slope. I see her shaking her head — long, curly hair — looking at the stains on her white T-shirt and sighing.

Suddenly, she notices the silence: nothing but the birds singing, the echo of her own shoes, the shadows settling in behind her. She rustles around in her bag looking for cigarettes, then remembers she had the last one while she was clearing the table.

She picks up a dry branch and whips the air. Mosquitoes and gnats.

After a bend in the road, she sees a white van approach.

She knows the driver, but at first he must look like a shadow behind the windshield.

The van slows down, then stops.

Hello, she says.

The man leans out the window and smiles at her. His hair is dusty, his shirtsleeves rolled up. His left hand taps against the van door, as if counting down the time.

Everything good?

I missed my bus.

That's a shame.

Yep, she answers.

My father looks at the road ahead, and into his side-view mirror.

It's a long walk, to get home.

It's just that my feet hurt, she says.

Maybe she's about to say "goodbye" and keep on walking. This is her last chance.

I'll give you a lift, he tells her. Come on, get in.

No, seriously, you don't have to.

It's no problem.

His smile is open and welcoming. It's quite the stroke of luck, really.

Really? Thank you.

She steps up to the van, throws away the stick, while my father, mouth dry, hands shaking, frees up the passenger seat — an electric flashlight, crumpled cigarette packs — throwing everything onto the floor.

She opens the door.

It's filthy, he says. I'm sorry.

No, it's fine, she says climbing in. Thanks again.

Not at all, it's a pleasure.

No one sees him drive over to the restaurant's parking lot, turn around, head back onto the road, and drive away.


It was a dry, windy afternoon, after school had ended, when I saw a boy at the gas station, sitting on the wall at the end of the lot. He waved in my direction, I waved back.

My father paid for the full tank, got back in the van, and stopped for a second.

"Are we going?" I asked.

"I can't take you anymore. I forgot I need to do something."

We were heading over to where he worked — the small semi-detached-housing development. He'd been working there for three months, as a manual laborer. I was curious and had asked to visit.

"And what am I supposed to do?"

"Take the bus and go home."

"Can't I go with you?"

My father just blinked. It would have been pointless to argue. I huffed and got out, and watched him head off in the dust; then I turned to the young man: he had stood up and was staring at me, rubbing the sole of his shoe on the pavement. He came over toward me.

"Did he dump you here?" he asked.

"Looks like it."

"That makes two of us."

He was tall, skinny, black eyes that were too small for his face, long hair, red zits on his cheeks.

"I haven't seen you around before," I said.

"Got here two days ago."

He nodded toward the house behind the gas pumps, and toward Santo Trabuio standing in front of his shelter, in his blue jumpsuit, dirty cloth in his hand.

"He's my mother's father," he said.

"You mean your grandpa?"

"I don't even know him."

It took me a second to realize what he meant — I knew about Trabuio's daughter, who had run away with a guy when she was really young, disappeared; I knew my mother didn't like her. At the funeral for Santo's wife, someone said: "She should be ashamed. Didn't even come back for her mother," and she added: "What were you expecting? You know what she's like."

"Are you here for the holidays?"

"This place? Are you a moron?"

"Oh, okay," I replied. "Sorry." I made to leave.

"I'm Stefano," he said.


He smacked his lips and threw a sad look at the other side of the road, a sea of grass whipped by the strong wind, then asked: "Do you want a smoke?"


"Come on, then."

He headed off, hands in his pockets. I followed him across the pavement.

This is another side of the story — my side.

When I saw her, in the small garden behind the house, next to a rusty car, hanging out the clothes, Anna Trabuio was humming.

I greeted her; she shielded her forehead and studied me.

She was wearing a sundress and leather sandals. Dyed hair — a pale blonde, washed out — thin lips, sunken cheeks, prominent cheekbones. She looked like she hadn't eaten in days. She was standing amid the weeds, the river at her back behind a wire fence and a couple of skeletal trees.

She said, "Hi."

She didn't ask who I was, then she leaned over and unraveled a towel from the laundry in her basket.

"Come on," he said.

I followed him into the kitchen — the smell of burned food and dirty dishes — and down a hallway.

"Shut the door," he said, stepping into his bedroom. He pulled a pack of MS out of his pocket, waited for me to take one, hopped onto the window ledge, flicked the lighter, and took a drag before handing it to me.

"Does your mother know you smoke?"

"Why? What's the problem?"

"Nothing," I said.

The room was a dump, a pink throw on the bed and faded flowery wallpaper. On the desk, an open suitcase, a pile of clothes on the chair.

"Do you sleep here?"

"For now. It was my mother's room. We both stay here, there's another bed under that one." He looked out at the road and the browning hills and the gathering clouds. "Where were you going?"

I told him about the construction site and my father's job. "What does yours do?"

"Stuff, in different places."

"And where do you live?"

He used to live outside Turin, first floor of an apartment building, he said. There were a lot of kids in the area: he knew everyone. A field to play football, shops, warehouses. The kitchen windows shaking when trains went by. His parents had started arguing, he added, slamming doors and shouting, then his mother quickly packed their bags and they had left.

"She didn't tell him."

"You mean your father doesn't know you're here?"

"He didn't know, but I called him."

We threw the butts away. Stefano stretched his legs and looked at the tips of his shoes. "I'm not staying anyway. He's coming to get me as soon as he can."

His mother's footsteps got closer, up to the door, she knocked and walked into the bedroom. "I'm getting dinner ready," she said, and looked at me. "You can stay if you want."

She caught me by surprise, as I was about to leave.

"Is that okay with you?" I asked, and Stefano nodded. "Where's the phone? I need to tell my parents."

He pointed at the road: "They cut off his home one," he said, referring to his grandfather. "There's another in the shelter, but he doesn't let us use it." He pulled a small pile of coins out of his pocket. "I have plenty."

I called from the phone booth at the intersection, under the darkening sky, the wind picking up, watching Stefano stamp on a patch of grass on the curb, running his hand through his hair.

I let it ring for a while. I was about to hang up when I heard my mother's voice.

"What?" She sounded exhausted. She held the phone away from her mouth.

"It's me."

"Is everything all right? Is your father there?"

"He left. I stayed here."


"The gas station. He said he'd forgotten something."

My mother let out a long sigh.

"I've been invited to dinner."

I hadn't been out to anyone else's since that winter, which had worried her, so she livened up for a second and sounded happy. "Yes, of course. Who by?"

"Santo's grandson. He got here two days ago."

She didn't reply right away, then said, "I heard." There was a bitter note in her voice. "How will you get back? I'm tired this evening."

The last bus left Ponte at ten to seven. I had asked for a scooter several times, but they never agreed to buy me one. "Dad?"

"He needs to be up early."

"Hang on." I covered the mouthpiece with my hand. I glanced at Stefano: he had crouched down and was pulling at the grass now, as if it had become personal. I looked at Santo Trabuio, farther away, closing up his shelter. "He's giving me a lift," I told her. I would walk home, I didn't care.

My mother hesitated — the son of the woman who ran away from Ponte, the one she didn't like: that's what I thought, and I was partially right. "Elia, why —"

"I have to go now, bye."

We headed back to Stefano's house.

Santo Trabuio was at the table. He was still wearing his jumpsuit from work. He nodded toward me, then picked up his napkin and stuffed it into his collar.

Anna pointed me to a chair. "There's a storm coming," she said.

Door and windows were open, and the kitchen was half in the dark. Pots and pans were piled up in the sink. Two daisies in a glass jar on the countertop. The empty dishpan by the fridge.

She sat down and filled up our plates, spaghetti with tomato sauce, and watched me, as if curious about the way I held my fork or how I chewed.

"There's as much as you want," she said, and silence fell for a while, just the clinking of cutlery against plates. The wind was lashing against the trees and the laundry on the line, in that dried-up garden.

"So, how did you two meet?" Anna asked.

"I came with my father ..."

Santo Trabuio aimed his dark, dry eyes at hers: "He's Ettore Furenti's son."

My father's name thundered in the half-light.

She rested her elbows on the table and touched her lips. "Oh, that's what it is," she said. "Of course, you look just like him. What's your name? I haven't even asked you."

I told her.

"What a lovely name." She shivered and rubbed her arms. "How old are you?"


"Really? Like him. I thought you'd be older."

I don't think that was true: I still looked like a child.

She asked me about school — a polytechnic, in town, the same one my dad had gone to. She said Stefano had failed a year, but he was actually smart, he just needed to apply himself.

"I'm not going back to school, I told you," he said. "Dad says the same."

She tied her hair back at the nape of her neck, pulling it behind her ears. "We'll see."

It had started raining, heavy, solitary drops, then a sudden wall of water. Lightning cut through the sky. She jumped up and ran to close the door and windows.

"When I was small I used to hide in the wardrobe or under the table whenever the storms came," she said. "Dad, you remember that?"

Santo didn't reply: he took a cigarette out of its pack, lit it, exhaled a white cloud toward the ceiling, and left.

She watched him disappear into the hallway.

We finished our meal by talking about the boy.

"We saw it on TV," she said. "They still haven't found out who did it, have they?"

I shook my head.

"That place," said Stefano. "Is it far?"

"Which one?"

"The one they found him in."

"Not really, no."

"I'd like to go."

Anna frowned at him. "You need to keep clear of it."

I didn't say that one cold, crisp afternoon in February, I had climbed up to the mine, crossed the tape, crouched down in the snow on that ledge, imagining the boy's naked body and a man with no face circling him.

The rain was crawling down the glass and it was dark.

"I should go," I said. "I'm on foot."

She turned toward me, lips still pursed.

"No way. Especially not in this weather." She stood up, went to the hallway. "I'll give you a lift. Let me just get my umbrella."

We were left alone for a second. Stefano grabbed his fork, pressed the prongs against the tablecloth.

"I can come get you tomorrow, if you want."


Anna came back into the kitchen with a bag clutched to her chest and car keys in hand. "Couldn't find it," she said. "I never find what I'm looking for. Nothing new."

The cold, damp air embraced us. The crashing of rain, the clothesline, and the soaked laundry.

"It might be a good idea to run," she said and started to laugh, her laughter mixed with the wind and the rain, and I followed her along the pavement around the house and across the clearing, between the puddles, past the shelter and under the metal canopy where Santo's car was parked.

She was still laughing as we got in. "It looks like we just showered."

"I'm sorry; you really didn't have to."

"Why? It's fun."

I rubbed my face with my wet T-shirt. She looked into the mirror, brushed her hair off her forehead, and ran her fingers under her eyes.

"It's been a while since I drove," she said, studying the gear stick, the tip of her tongue sticking out between her lips. "He sold our car," she sighed.


"Stefano's father."

She shifted the seat forward and started the engine, switched on the headlights. She set off, the engine hiccupped, and she turned on the wipers. Under the rain, everything — the gas pumps, the sign, the road, the unkempt field and the hills — was uncertain and out of focus.

"All right," she muttered when I told her to turn right, and slowed down as soon as we got onto the road in the woods. She was driving really slowly.

"What does your father do?" she asked.

"Used to work at the cotton place. Now he's a construction worker."

She must have known about the closure, I thought, because she just nodded. "And how is he?"

"Very well, thank you."

"I'm glad." She seemed relieved. "He was a great kid. Around your age, one summer, he helped out in the workshop."

"I know." I also knew that Santo had closed it down after his wife's death.

The rain began to ease off, and Anna slowed the wipers. "It was hard for your father, when he was left alone."

"He never talks to me about these things," I said.

"Well, we all have secrets, right? Even you, I bet."

A fragment of moon, pale and veiled, peeked out from behind the clouds. We passed the straight road where, two months later, my father would pick up the girl.

"It's nearly my birthday," she said, quietly, almost as if letting me in on a secret. "Thirty- six. But I could be younger or older. It depends on the moment."

We passed the windows of the restaurant, shadows sitting at the tables and cars parked outside. The road was empty. After the last bend, I spotted the light of the porch between the trees.

"We're here," I said.

The headlights lit up the driveway and the mailbox. The van was in the yard, next to the car. The lights were off — I thought they must be sleeping. From Ida's house we could hear a song by Battisti: music was the only thing that could placate Simona.

Anna stopped the car and turned to face me. "Your mother," she said. "Her name's Marta, right?"

I nodded, and so did she.

"You look like her too. Here," she touched my forehead. "Same eyes. I knew her. I knew everyone. It feels like a century ago. Maybe it has been," she sighed. "Please say hi to them from me."

She leaned her head against the seat, as if she needed to rest for a bit. "I like this song," she muttered.

I listened, without saying anything.

"Good night then, Elia Furenti."

She was staring at the trees, the spot where the road yielded to a path, and she didn't say anything else when I said goodbye.


Excerpted from "Can You Hear Me?"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Elena Varvello.
Excerpted by permission of Quercus.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

In the Woods,
Truth (1),
The Girl,
Honor Thy Father,
The Wall,
You Can't Leave,
The Birthday,
The Right Moment,
The Good Life,
The End of Summer,
I'm Here,
Over There,
Truth (2),
Author's note,
About the author,
About the translator,

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