ON FINISHING Lives of the Saints back in 1990, readers of Nino Ricci's stellar first novel were left - after the chorus of bravos died down - with whetted appetites for the sequel. Lives of the Saints was masterly, a tender, tragic illumination of human pride, dignity, and weakness that seemed too fully conceived a fiction for a writer of just 31 years. Winner of both the Governor General's Award and the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, it was a novel that you sped through in a sitting before stopping on a dime at its terrible, unforgettable climax. Better still - for hungry readers - it was the first in a projected trilogy.
An impossible act to follow, perhaps, but the sequel is bound to be a bigger disappointment to Ricci fans than overinflated expectations can explain. In a Glass House finds the aptly named child narrator, Vittorio Innocente, where we left him in the preceding work, a seven year-old emigrant dragging the memory of his dead mother - and a "bastard" newborn half-sister - to an uncertain future in Canada. Vittorio struggles to forget both his mother and their life together in the torpid Italian village of Valle del Sole and to redefine himself within the desperately poor, vegetable-growing township of Mersea, a fictional community of transplanted Italians loosely based on Leamington, Ontario.
Standing squarely in the path of this journey to self-knowledge is Vittorio's father, Mario. A minor character in the earlier novel, here he is a brooding, inscrutable character in a book full of brooding, inscrutable people. Mario can't abide the presence of his daughter, Rita, the product of his dead wife's infidelity, so he spiritually abandons her even while living under the same roof with her. At the same time, Mario seems to mourn the loss of his wife, losing himself often in self-pity and the back-breaking work in the greenhouses that, by the end of the novel, will make him modestly wealthy. Mario does not even bother to name his daughter until his sister arrives from Italy to take on the running of the household. Vittorio is caught between his instinctive love for his half-sister and his father's fearful loathing of her.
From the point of view of plot comprehension, In a Glass House is more or less self-contained; the reader is able to piece together the events of the explosive first book, of which the second reads like the numbed aftermath. However, the sequel is unsatisfying for other reasons. While Lives of the Saints was set during nine months of heady action, the second ambles across nearly three decades in which little out of the ordinary happens. We follow Vittorio through his first, predictably awkward years in Canada, an immigrant with halting English and homely clothes who is trapped in an insular community. But the awkwardness he feels does not end even when he becomes adept in the language and customs of his new world, and changes his name to Victor. Raised by a father who detests his own children, Victor grows into a singularly suspicious, bored, and lonely man with an obnoxious streak of superiority. By the time he reaches university in Toronto, Victor has developed a nagging drug problem and suicidal tendencies.
Unfortunately, Ricci has chosen to filter his story through a profoundly unsympathetic narrator who is incapable of intimacy or true understanding of the people around him, and yet ruminates whole chapters away indeed the entire book - on the complexities of human relationships. Rita solves the problem of her abusive father by falsely accusing him of beating her, engineering her own adoption by an English family far removed from her unhappy Italian roots. Victor compensates for his guilt over Rita's withdrawal from the family with cursory visits to her new milieu, but he never attempts any meaningful resolution with her, nor with his father, who over time becomes inexplicably paternal.
However understandable Victor's profound ambivalence and utter humourlessness may be in the light of his upbringing, they weigh heavily on the telling of the story. The dialogue is often witheringly banal. Victor prefaces many of his statements with "I dunno...." And indeed he doesn't know much. Seen through the grey prism of Victor's consciousness, the lesser characters never come to life. In contrast to the vivid cast in Lives of the Saints - little Fabrizio, Di Lucci, Cristina herself In a Glass House relies mostly on Victor's own limited, highly jaundiced view of the world. Victor views reality as if it's taking place on a television screen:
The previous months seemed a dream I'd been through now: I'd come out to discover the world and yet still it eluded me, remote as these flickerings I watched in the common room's late-night dark.
Unlike television sequels, In a Glass House can't magically resurrect Cristina, or return to us the charming boy narrator of the earlier volume. But in losing them along the path from innocence to experience that is traced here, Ricci limits the scope of his fiction. The passion, humour, and poignancy of the earlier work have been subsumed by Victor's blackness, bloodlessness, and '90s-styte dysfunction. To put it another way, when the green snake - which catapulted us into the first story - makes an appearance here, it finds no one worth biting.