Matteo’s world comes to an end when his 6 year old son Pippo is killed, caught in the middle of a gang war. Guiliana, Pippo’s mother finds the only way she can cope with her grief is to never think of her son again. Matteo meanwhile, finds himself driving around the city of Naples at night. It is on one of these lonely drives that he encounters a man who tells him about the underworld. The world where souls roam and the dead live. And so Matteo vows to recover Pippo from Hell’s Gate.
Though this is a short novel, it packs a lot into it’s 190 pages. Laurent Gaudé turns the idea of heaven and hell on it’s head. Here, in the harbours of Naples, there is a gate to the underworld, the place where souls go when the physical body has died. It is a dark, cold, horror filled place, one that Dante would be proud of. There are no golden gates and trumpeted angels in this version of the afterlife. The prose is brief but almost lyrical. Images of the underworld, of the sea of souls that must be crossed, of the vistas are vivid. The grief of Matteo and Guiliana is palpable and almost heart-breaking.
Hell’s Gate is not a murder mystery, though a murder does trigger everything. It’s a study in grief and how it affects everyone differently. It is a story of love conquering all, even death and of how love can break people, the loss of a person turning someone into a shadow of their former selves.
The novel was translated from French by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken. As with all good translations it is easy to forget that the novel wasn’t written in English. The feeling that these are the intended, original words of the author is ever present in Hell’s Gate.
Hell’s Gate explores the taint that death leaves on those left behind, of how we each of us cope in different ways. Not always an easy read and certainly not comfortable, this is a thought-provoking, unsettling, often heart-wrenching and moving novel.