Rating: B+/ A quick read that sucks you in immediately with it’s fascinating premise, I’m Not Scared actually pales a little in comparison to it’s outstanding film adaptation, but is nevertheless absolutely a compulsively readable and extremely entertaining book. I bought the book because I was a huge fan of the film, and I finished it in a day. I think I would have liked it better if I didn’t know almost exactly what was going to happen from the movie version, which robbed the suspenseful story of the element of surprise; and the ending did not quite work for me. I think it will make for a better experience if you read the book first. But nonetheless, I’m Not Scared is a compelling read with a likable boy protagonist who is forced to come of age and make some very hard decisions over the course of a sweltering summer in a small Italian village in 1978.
Michele is an innocent nine-year-old who stumbles upon a horrifying secret while exploring the outskirts of his village with his friends. While carrying out a dangerous dare in an derelict house, he finds a hole with a dirty, naked boy his age chained up in it. Unsure of how to proceed, Michelle returns to the hole several times with food and gets to know the boy who is being kept imprisoned there, Filippo. The son of wealthy parents, Filippo is being held for ransom, and although he doesn’t have a complete grasp of adult motives, Michele begins to believe that his parents might somehow be involved in Filippo’s abduction and ill treatment.
With I’m Not Scared, we are given a fascinating setting, and a compelling lead, who is old enough to be very independent and young enough to be afraid of the mythic monsters who might hide between the cracks of day to day life. To Michele, Lazarus, the biblical character who miraculously rose from the dead, is just as frightening as witches and werewolves. We see how a pastiche of popular culture of the time, religion, and family issues deeply affects young Michele’s fantasy world, where imaginary creatures who wish to cause him harm meld almost seamlessly with the nightmare unfolding before his eyes.
The book is told from the point of view of the adult Michele, perhaps present tense would have been more effective. Similarly, the friendship between Filippo and Michele seems a little underdeveloped. Nonetheless, we see Michele’s interest in Filippo develop from the uncaring ownership of a really cool secret as beginning to see Filippo as a human being and a friend. Likewise, we also see Michele going, in classic coming-of-age style, from seeing his parents as these awesome, all-powerful people to seeing their fallibility in the form of their exploitation of a child for the sake of monetary gain. Michele has a intense, slightly Oedipal adoration of his beautiful mother, but he comes to realize that she is not perfect, in fact, she is all too capable of human err and evil.
The writing style is very simple and easy to read, yet at the same time articulate and interesting. The characters are vivid, and there are even moments of humor, such as the larger-than-life mythos of Michele’s eccentric old neighbor’s supposedly man-eating pigs, who are allegedly trained to kill on command. The metaphor of the pigs, while amusing, ties in with the deeper meaning of the story… things are not always as they seem when you are nine years old.
Sometimes they’re less complicated, but more often than not, they’re even more so. If there is one really weak part of this novel, it’s the infuriatingly oblique ending. I think an epilogue could have worked to elevate this book from very good to great. Upon finishing it, my head was full of questions. The movie had the same problem, now that I think of it. But for the most part I’m Not Scared is a dark, atmospheric, and profound look into how a child processes some really dark realizations, and comes to terms with the complexities and moral quandaries of adult life.