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The Dark Side of the Sky (by Francesco Dmitri)

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‘Our whole life — what we believe, what we do — hinges on whatever answer we give. What do we live for?

Since before we are born, there is a whole world deciding for us [...] Making laws for us to follow and inflicting punishments if we dare to differ.’

Title: The Dark Side of the Sky
Author: Francesco Dmitri
Pages:
355
Published by: Titan Books

As the dark of evening gathers and the fire crackles, the Open Feast awaits you and your fellow guests.

You gather around the fire, close your eyes, and hum in unison with your misfits-in-arms. The hubbub builds until it reaches its zenith, and you sense an otherworldly presence as the known world melts away.

This is The Dark Side of the Sky, a marvellous piece of contemporary magic realism from Francesco Dmitri, author of Never the Wind and The Book of Hidden Things.

It’s a thrilling tale of belonging, morality, and a reexamination of the social contract we all unwittingly sign upon birth.

What is The Dark Side of the Sky about?

Dmitri’s latest novel follows The Bastion, a spiritualist collective living in relative isolation on a reserve in Puglia, south Italy.

Once a year, the Bastion extends an exclusive invitation to the ‘Open Feast,’ a secretive cultural retreat for the curious. The Feast’s visitors, all with divergent life experiences, arrive for different reasons.

These include Zoey Lee, CEO of Soul Journey — a mind, body, and spirit festival — who is keen to check out what competitors in the sector are doing. Charlie, a young professional French woman, looks for answers following a recent traumatic event. Meanwhile, Mikka, a roving hippie with a penchant for hard drugs, seeks a fraternal home.

The Dark Side of the Sky follows the lives of Open Feast participants from their humdrum day-to-day lives, through to the more exotic, mind-bending nights by the campfire. Told from multiple perspectives, Dmitri spins a truly brilliant yarn with an equally solid cast of characters.

Nuanced and morally complex

Every generation, the media—invariably right-leaning—selects a group of people it decides to ostracise.

Whether it’s The Catcher in the Rye poisoning the youth of its time, the wealth of moral panics around comic books, or sinister emo bands ‘cults’ corrupting our children, history isn’t short of cultural scapegoats.

But there’s a common thread that binds these incidents. A new or ‘alternative’ form of art emerges, prompting the media to run a handful of shock-jock stories on the alleged effects it has on the younger generation.

On the face of it, The Bastion is an ideal target. They’re young, hostile to social norms, and believe that they’re going to save the world. At best, it appears naive — a target ripe for ridicule — and at worst, a dangerous inculcation of Messianic dogma.

There’s a risk that a novel like this lapses into straightforward binaries of good versus evil, old versus young, and progressive versus regressive, with our outsiders struggling against a system rigged against them.

However, The Dark Side of the Sky is a delightfully nuanced and morally complex novel that blurs the boundary of cult and community in a fascinating way, riffing on this ambiguity to disorientate the reader.

Final Thoughts

The Dark Side of the Sky is peak magic realism, managing to capture that elusive balance of real-world relatability and implied wonder that masters of the genre exhibit.

With beautiful, evocative, (and sometimes brutal) writing, Dmitri’s novel captures the magic of the Open Feast with great success. The writing style is ‘literary’ without being too high-minded, and accessible without being too simplistic.

The setting of Puglia does feel frustratingly underutilised — the Open Feast could, conceivably, have been held anywhere — but it doesn’t detract from an excellent tale and may even help reach a wider audience.

In any case, The Dark Side of the Sky is a genuine page-turner that will generate lots of discussion and debate, both at book clubs and online. I’ll certainly be checking out Dmitri’s back catalogue after this one.

4/5

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