In Philadalphia of 1918, the Great War is winding down, but the flu epidemic is just getting started, ravaging the Italian quarter of the city that Fiora Vicente calls home. Newly orphaned due to the new sickness which has swept in on the wings of war, the sheltered teen is brought to live with an older gentleman, a respected member of the community, for reasons that Fiora can’t fathom, but for which she is grateful, in her spoiled way, all the same.
One of the greatest successes of this novel is Tarquini’s creating an unlikeable and yet sympathetic young protagonist, whose horror at the world is visceral and real, and who yet lives in a sort of fantasy world, a bubble that could be pricked at any moment. Like most sections of cities populated primarily by people of the same nationality–even the same small communities–the Italian quarter of Philadelphia is insular in its own way, with everyone knowing the business of everyone else. But Fiora is the outsider, and it is her inability to become part of the wider community that Don Sebastiano oversees that leads to her drawing the bubble of time around herself and her small territory, afraid to let the outside world in lest more sickness arrive, more people die, or word of her brothers off fighting in Italy come through.
The Infinite Now is a poignant, and yet claustrophobic, story of emmigration, community, and bereavement; for every step forward that Fiora takes, life seems determined to push her backwards. Tarquini does a good job of building palpable tension, symbolized by the brief, yet unchangeable glimpses into the future that Fiora gets through the fortuneteller’s curtain she inherits from her mother. The warring feelings of isolation and smothering she feels, the ways in which she slips back and forth between forming meaningful relationships and being pushed away from people because of assumptions and prejudices, are both effective and well-constructed.
This is also a novel of a particular time, a window into a small portrait of European-American experience that can be hard to imagine, from this 100-year vantage, and The Infinite Now, apart from its pseudo-time travel elements, also live up to its name in terms of the ways it evokes an infinitely huge, and yet infinitely small world, where people who emigrate become irrevocably separated from their home communities through the vastness of oceans, and yet never seem to leave the tiny worlds they make for themselves in their new countries.
If there is any complaint to be made about the novel, it would be the ways in which it too neatly wraps up the story’s conclusion. It takes an issue–non hetero sexual orientation, which was often a serious taboo in traditional and insular communities–and treats it, first of all, as no big deal, and then seems to forget it entirely in its attempts to bring the novel to a close as the story of an old woman looking back on her life long ago. For those into period novels with a dash of fantasy, this novel will do nicely, but those for whom LGBT identity representation is important, this might be a small red flag.