When his son is killed by gangsters’ crossfire on his way to school, Neapolitan taxi driver Matteo is consumed by despair.
But just when he feels life has lost all meaning, he encounters a man who claims the living can find ways into the afterlife. And legend says that there’s an entrance to the underworld beneath Naples. What if Matteo had a chance of bringing Pippo back from the dead?
Very, very, rarely does a book literally haunt my dreams in the way that the perfectly executed Hell’s Gate did, and as a mark of its intensely powerful writing it drifts back into my thoughts. Despite only running to less than two hundred pages, this book contains more philosophical examination of the human condition, and important questions and observations on the nature of faith, redemption and the life beyond, that I really did experience a multitude of emotions reading this. What could simply have been a straightforward tale of revenge and loss reveals itself to be so much more…
Although I’m probably the most irreligious person I know, I was genuinely moved, terrified and in awe of Gaude’s portrayal of the afterlife, and the sheer intensity of the love that Matteo exhibits in reconnecting with his son, despite the huge mental and physical cost to himself. Gaude’s depiction of Hell, and the souls that dwell within it, conjures up images worthy of Hieronymus Bosch and Dante, and the writing of these scenes in particular is utterly chilling. Gaude possesses an innate skill in making us believe that we are walking in Matteo’s shadow as he navigates the underworld, such is the visual power of the horrific images and depiction of sounds that accompany his torturous journey to reclaim his son. This unrelenting presentation of human misery and suffering is powerful in the extreme, and gives the reader more than one pause for thought.
The characterisation of the damaged individuals who become aligned with Matteo in his hellish mission, is suffused with pathos. The individual travails of their lives gives Gaude ample room to provide comment on sexuality, poverty, exploitation and the insidious power of the Catholic church, all of which he does with a cool eye and sense of detachment which makes these individual’s suffering all the more poignant and resonant. This is a masterclass in characterisation where Gaude shifts the focus on each character subtly and fluidly to really get under the reader’s skin, and worm their way into our consciousness so they truly stay with us.
There is simply no way that this book can be usurped from my eventual favourite reads of the year, even at this early stage, as I was profoundly affected by the power of Gaude’s writing. Mesmerising, cerebral writing that I cannot praise enough. Highly recommended.
(With thanks to Gallic Books for the ARC)