What a difference one round makes. The Tournament of Books play-in books were all excellent, setting up high expectations for the first round of books. If only those expectations were met. Both “Warlight” and “Call Me Zebra” were very mediocre books, verging on the terrible. A good premise and sweaty efforts that exude out of every page do not a good book make. It would have been very easy to give up on the Tournament of Books at this point, but I’m so glad that I stuck to it.
The round 2 books were the complete opposite of round 1, finally giving the play-in books a run for their money. “Milkman” is one of the best books that I have ever read, period. It deserves to stand in any capital L Literature shelf in every library around the world. I was genuinely worried for “The Italian Teacher”, sure that “Milkman” would mop the floor with it. It didn’t.
Tom Rachman’s “The Italian Teacher” is a study of what makes an artist, how humans connect and how those connections evolve with time, and the gap between what people’s expectations of what an artist’s life and work process is versus the often lacklustre reality of their lives. It is far from a treatise though — every character pops off the page, juicy and real and warm, the dialogue sparkles, the oftentimes tragic story is sprinkled with humour and good nature, making it a fun read, even though oftentimes you want to punch this or that character in the mouth or shake them to awareness. Every little detail is well thought out, but unlike “Call Me Zebra”, you don’t see the sweat. It feels so effortless to read that you’re lulled into thinking that it was effortless to write.
If it was placed against any of the round 1 Tournament of Books books it would have easily trounced them. As it stands against “Milkman”, I doubt that it will advance beyond this round. “Milkman” has a timeless, monumental quality about it, even though its heroine leads a much less glamorous life than Bear and Pinch, or even Natalie. In a place where the sky is always blue and sunsets are not something you go and watch, great novels grow.