Considering its wealth of details and the intimacy of its first-person voice, it’s hard to believe that The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti is a work of fiction and not a memoir.
The novel’s narrator, Pietro, is from a middle-class family that holidays in the foothills of the Dolomites along Italy’s northeastern border. Here he meets Bruno, a cow herder from a poor family, and the two boys form a tight bond. Like Pietro, the author divides his time between Milan and his cabin in the Italian Alps. Because of this, mountaineering, the outdoors and homebuilding are described throughout The Eight Mountains with such specificity that these sections are part instruction manual, part diary: “Four screws were necessary for each bracket, which meant thirty-two holes in all. According to Bruno these numbers were crucial: the whole viability of the roof depended on them.” Descriptions of nature are especially delightful: “I startled roe deer foraging in the abandoned pastures; bolt upright with their ears at attention, they would look at me in alarm for an instant, then flee to the woods like thieves.”
The Eight Mountains evokes a hunger and passion for the outdoors that is entwined with the boys’ enduring friendship and their bond with Pietro’s father. (Pietro often feels that rugged Bruno is the son his aloof, intense father always longed for.) This is juxtaposed with an aching sense of melancholy when Pietro’s and Bruno’s lives unspool in adulthood, as money concerns and failed relationships take hold.
A literary sensation in Italy, this isn’t so much a page-turner as a novel that draws you in, gets into your soul and never leaves.