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  • Writer's pictureLucy Rand

Unreal City by Cristina Marconi

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

Città irreale

Ponte alle Grazie

February 2019

272 pages

This is the debut novel from London-based Italian journalist Cristina Marconi and is a candidate for the Premio Strega 2019. Alina, 26, leaves the asphyxiating Rome of her upbringing for London, the city of dreams and boundlessness. The novel takes place between 2007 and 2015, the brink of Brexit. For Italian readers, this story of Italy's youth escaping the Bel Paese for lands richer in opportunity will speak to the experiences of many. But for English readers the novel is appealing for a different reason. It offers a sharp-sighted "outsider" view of London and its inhabitants that we are rarely granted access to. Marconi’s voice is affectionate, dry, and at times bewildered by our often mysterious ways of living alongside one another.

But more than just being a lens on the UK from a disorienting angle and a much-needed encouragement of empathy towards migrants living in the UK, I found myself laughing out loud at Marconi’s cynical gaze in scenes that uncomfortably brought back moments from my own experiences of living abroad. The novel opens in a Japanese restaurant in Soho where Alina is having dinner with her Japanese colleague, Miwa, and a motley crew of other foreigners trying and failing to find common ground in their ‘horrible English.’ We can feel Alina’s eyes roll back with the tedium when she’s asked, yet again, whether she likes London.

‘How can I not like London? Now you’re seeing me like this, placid and composed, pretending to socialise with these people I couldn’t care less about, and I doubt you, silently plumbing the depths of your soup bowls, do either, but I have grand plans for myself. Plans as grand as the city. I chose it especially, this mastodon of railways with a belly full of bitumen, this irrational place where all things human and modern converge, yet that is built like a continuous, infinite declaration of love for nature.’

The pages keep turning, partly for her dry wit and refreshing observations, but also because it’s a coming-of-age story that strikes a brilliant balance between funny descriptions of fish-out-of-water clumsiness and the sincerity of reflections on love, suffering and the question of what it really means to be free. With Marconi’s even and fluid prose, at times I found myself wondering whether I was reading the Italian answer to Sally Rooney’s Normal People.

The novel conveys the reality of many, and has even been called ‘the novel of our generation’ by one Italian reviewer. But despite it not yet being available in English, I read it as a distinctly British novel. A large part of the UK’s population today is made up of young Europeans, including British ones, most of whom are searching for the same thing: a shared, secure future. Unreal City is a charming and entertaining testimony to a defining and serious moment in European history.

“Few writers are able to manage perspicacity and candour, humour and passion, sensuality and awkwardness, tenderness and intransigence: for Cristina Marconi it’s a natural process, her style, perhaps.”

Unreal City, with its direct and precise prose and well-constructed plot, forces the reader to reflect. What does it mean, today, to be from one country rather than another? Is it possible to remedy our errors? What price must we pay to follow our dreams? What sacrifices must we make, what challenges must we face, to finally find ourselves? A good novel stimulates questions, but doesn’t necessarily provide the answers.” Riccardo De Palo, Il Messaggero

English rights available

Rights queries:

Ponte alle Grazie (Italy)

Contact: Viviana Vuscovich

[Translations all my own]

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