Review: Burning Down by Venero Armanno

Boxer infront of warehouse - Burning Down cover imgae Burning Down by Venero Armanno
UQP RRP: $29.99AUD

In Burning Down we meet former boxer Carmelo Fumo, known to many as Charlie Smoke – a pseudonym given to him during his 1930s heyday by an ambitious promoter who insisted ‘dago names’ would never work for fans on the Aussie circuit. Now pushing 60, with his fighting days behind him, Charlie keeps himself to himself. He takes odd jobs as a builder, and maintains a little fitness and sanity by running low key training sessions for local youths in his outer suburban Brisbane home.

Gesu Cristo, getting old means waking up every day with some new part of yourself hurting.

The pain he feels is physical and emotional. He is estranged from a daughter, Sistine, thanks to a series of past events for which he’s never truly made amends. Sistine, in turn, is entangled with the son of Charlie’s old fight foe Diego ‘The Danger’ Domingo. These families collide at the funeral of Charlie’s ex-wife, Tracy, who had maintained contact with the Domingos – owners of a popular restaurant in Brisbane’s bustling Fortitude Valley. This becomes an epicentre for the action of the narrative as past demons return to wreak havoc.

Burning Down taps into a well-documented period of corruption and lawlessness in 1970s Brisbane, where rapid commercial development was backed by big money – and all the shady dealings that can accompany that process. The central story is one of secrets and lies, between and within families. Armanno unpacks the relationships between children and parents, husbands and wives – always fraught, but further strained by the pressures of financial uncertainty.

In the Valley of the 1970s, there are secrets enough for anyone, but Charlie has a particular cross to bear – the revelation of which will make or break him, as well as the lives of those closest to him. Armanno, as ever, writes with great sensitivity about love and loyalty. Charlie is a rich character, dragging his past around like a sack of bricks. We get the feeling it’s this burden as much as the march of time that’s causing the odd twinge in his back and pressure on his heart. By the end of the novel, we mercifully see Charlie’s future looking brighter; although aspects of his past must go up in flames to let the light in.

Many of Armanno’s past novels cover similar thematic territory: family sagas set in the migrant communities of inner city Brisbane. Some of his most ambitious novels (like Firehead or The Volcano) take their family stories back for generations, linking contemporary lives with mythological origins in sweeping stories of passion and fury. Burning Down, is a much tighter story, covering only a handful of key players and their interconnected lives, but nonetheless articulate about the sins and virtues that govern the human experience; pride and fortitude vs greed and envy, to name a few.

One of Armanno’s writing gifts is to attribute equal respect to a raft of diverse characters. Charlie develops an unlikely friendship with a young tearaway, Ricky, for example, who is as desperate for a father figure as Charlie is to redeem himself as a parent to Sistine. There are moments were Ricky is naive or Charlie feels himself to be an old fool, but in fact both have much to teach each other and the relationship is clearly of mutual benefit. This is juxtaposed against other inter generational relationships, such as that of Diego and his son Bobby, that highlight why older people need to be open to change, but younger people still need to listen to the voice of experience.

Finally, Burning Down also talks about culture – another of Armanno’s longtime writing strengths – unpacking the migrant experience in Brisbane and the ways in which cultural identity contribute to these challenging family dynamics. Armanno scatters Italian and Spanish phrases throughout the book as markers of identity, contributing to character formation. This is a topic for a whole other blog post about intratextual translation (see here). I seem to make a habit of two-part reviews of Armanno’s work – see here for a discussion of Travel Under Any Star.

Meanwhile, you can buy Burning Down from your favourite local bookstore, or here…

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