IT’S A SHORT EXCHANGE in the middle of a sprawling story, a bit of dialogue between two characters in a coffee shop. One character is labeled simply “pockmarked guy,” the other, “proprietor”:

“Like Ilva?”

“Even worse.”

Translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and available in English for the first time with Europa Editions, Ferocity, Nicola Lagioia’s 2015 Strega Prize–winning novel, mentions Ilva only once and does so, it would seem, in passing. However, nothing in this inconvenient, untamed, but ultimately brilliant novel about the rise and fall of the Salvemini family, is throwaway, and Ilva is both a spot on the map and a proper name synonymous with manmade, environmental catastrophe. Think Three Mile Island or the Hanford Nuclear Power Plant, and you’re on your way to understanding the import of the proprietor’s words of warning.

The men are comparing the havoc wreaked by Ilva, a real-life Taranto-steel-mill-turned-superfund-site responsible for 83 percent of Italy’s most harmful emissions as well as 400 premature deaths in the region, to Porto Allegro, the shopping center that could make or break the fortunes of the fictional Salveminis. The fact that building Porto Allegro on a stretch of pristine Italian coastline could be on par with Ilva in terms of environmental destruction is not news to Vittorio, the 75-year-old Salvemini patriarch and self-made millionaire real estate developer, but the simple truth is, he doesn’t care about plovers and pink flamingoes. He wants only to preserve his wealth and reputation.

Ferocity is part ecological thriller, part murder mystery — at the heart of the story is a young, beautiful dead woman — and part family saga. The dead woman is Clara Salvemini. A gorgeous cipher, she is many things to many, many married men. She also has a problematic cocaine habit and a tendency toward depression. One night, she fails to come home to her beleaguered husband, and the next day she is found bloody and mangled at the foot of a tall parking structure. The official cause of death is suicide, but Clara’s half-brother, the Salvemini black sheep, Michele, suspects foul play.

Lagioia’s story is set in the ’80s in southern Italy, mainly in the cities of Taranto and his native Bari and is therefore inspiring inevitable comparisons to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Lagioia, like Ferrante, is concerned primarily with Italy’s dark and shameful underbelly. Taranto is “charming, unless you lived there.” Bari is “that fucking city.” This is not the same country where Lucy Honeychurch lost her bearings and found herself. There are no waving fields of poppies, no Baedeker-toting Charlotte Bartletts, no Eleanor Lavishes shaking out mackintosh squares. In their place are industrial parks, oil refineries, suburban shopping malls built on a foundation of lies, and men and women so damaged by the inherent cruelty of the human race it’s hard to distinguish their inner rot from the decay that surrounds them.

A good deal of that inner rot is a direct result of the culture’s embrace of rampant sexism, another subject dear to Ferrante’s heart, but in Lagioia’s hands misogyny is less a social construct and more of a force of nature. Contemplating a recent case in which three men beat another half to death, a Bari chief justice — and former lover of Clara’s — places the blame for male brutality on “a residue from a time before the first laws were chiseled into the basalt, a very distant ferocious era, always ready to open wide beneath our feet.” That isn’t to say that Lagioia is letting men off the hook. He isn’t interested in clearing the men responsible for Clara’s fate or painting as harmless their distasteful way of referring to women as sluts and whores and nothing more. Rather, one of his main projects in this aptly titled novel is plumbing the depths of our wildness, uncovering once and for all the line that separates man from beast. His conclusions — like his vivid prose and tangled plot — are intoxicatingly complex and discomfitingly circular. On one hand, Lagioia suggests that we are all animals, indistinguishable in our appetites from the snakes and sewer rats that skulk around the edges of tourist traps and cineplexes. On the other, as thinking and scheming creatures of capitalism, we are culpable for the destruction of the very habitats the most vulnerable beasts count on for survival. Plovers fall from the sky in black clouds of doom. Flamingoes die in agony, emitting cries never before heard by naturalists. And men keep on paving paradise.

Vittorio’s talent for navigating the notoriously corrupt world of Italian municipal politics has quite literally changed the landscape in and around Bari. His success has also made it possible for his wife and children to live comfortably if not happily in a well-appointed villa on the fashionable side of town. Annamaria, Vittorio’s wife and the mother of three of his children, is tortured by the presence of the fourth, Michele, the product of Vittorio’s affair with a younger woman. Ruggero, the eldest son, is an ambitious oncologist whose rise to the top is both eased and thwarted by his father’s obvious lack of scruples, and Gioia, the youngest daughter, is a spoiled mid-twentysomething, more concerned with Twitter likes and access to designer clothes than she is with her own sister’s death.

Michele, with his ambiguous mental health history and near-supernatual bond to Clara, understands instinctively that his family’s response to her death smacks of complicity, or at the very least apathy, and he launches a haphazard but passionate investigation into the web of political functionaries, low-level dignitaries, and just plain low-lifes that somehow succeeded in bringing down a ferociously vital young woman, the only person on the planet Michele cared about and, more importantly, the only one on earth who cared about him. His journey is both a physical and psychological one and takes him not only to the slimiest corners of a vice-ridden city, but also to the darkest parts of his psyche. In the end and against the advice of Ruggero and an environmental protection administrator, Michele turns whistleblower, convinced the ghost of Clara is steering him from beyond the grave.

The above makes Lagioia’s plot sound hard-boiled, but it is actually meandering, philosophical, and dizzyingly layered. I Am Love meets Toni Morrison, The Godfather meets Love Medicine. The layers not only advance the story but also complicate our understanding of this world of men on the brink and women surrendering to despair. Clara is at the center of that world. She’s the magnet, the muse, the why and wherefore. Character after character after character recounts his first and last and best and worst hour with her, including sweaty sex in an empty gym, humiliating sex in a sad hotel, and self-effacing sex in a movie theater, while a woman onscreen is battered by her boyfriend, and, as the scenes pile up and build on each other, Clara’s essence is alternately illuminated, blurred, polluted, and purified.

This could explain one of the weaknesses of the novel. Because Clara dies in the first chapter, very few pages are devoted to her point of view and the ones that are suffer from a frustrating brand of lyricism doing little to mask the fact that her actions are often contradictory to the point of absurdity. While waiting for one of her many married elderly lovers to return, Clara thinks of Michele, remembers him as a boy and longs to reunite with him. But not with the Michele that at that time is living in a functional state in Rome, but with the Michele of somewhere else, the Michele of her youth who resides in a universe parallel to the one in which she is married to a man she doesn’t love and prostitutes herself on a daily basis: “She herself must clearly be somewhere else, because otherwise the Clara that went to bed with a repulsive old man would have no explanation.”

As a somewhat creaking mechanism of plot and intrigue, her erratic and self-destructive behavior doesn’t have an explanation beyond grief over her estrangement from Michele; and it is in exploring Clara’s affairs and the impact of her fidelity on her husband, Alberto, that Lagioia’s hitherto artful critique of Italy’s machismo culture veers off-course. He even goes so far as to suggest that Clara’s affairs are by definition more injurious than the many infidelities past generations of Italian women have suffered through because “the despotism of their men was so crude and idiotic that it never struck them in full. But with a man who put up with betrayals as Alberto did, there could be an even greater oppression: in the apparent reversal of roles, an attempt to abuse power that aspired to the absolute.”

Ferocity is as much about the corrosive nature of power as it is about family, sex, and the scars etched on the earth by human hands. Corruption colors everyone and everything bruise-purple, and while Lagioia allows Vittorio to mellow somewhat over the course of the novel, to take small steps toward his Don-Corleone-in-the-garden-with-his-grandson moment, he makes it clear that his wealth and influence have come to him not through merit but through a systemic hypocrisy that favors the hollow and self-deluded: “If businessmen failed to keep their thresholds of awareness high, if they allowed thoughts to emerge that, once on the surface, would explode in all their total contradictory essence, then they’d never be able to rule the world as they do.” It’s impossible to resist the temptation to read some of these lines as an indictment of the Berlusconi administration, and now, with this English translation, a whole new set of readers can draw their own conclusions about ruthless real estate moguls freed from the burdens of conscience to bend both man and land to their will.

Bleak though it may be in its view of humanity and the future we’re facing, this novel offers many pleasures, not the least of which is Lagioia’s rich approach to simile, his unique ability to bring together the terrifying and the beautiful. A teenage Michele, forced to live without Clara for the first time when she decamps for England as part of a foreign exchange program, is overcome with the sensation that, in her absence, his days are dark fantasies robbed of substance, “as if the nightmare were being dreamed by a Xerox machine.”

Like life? Even better.

¤

Deborah E. Kennedy’s short stories have appeared in Third Coast magazine, Sou’wester, and North American Review, and she has contributed pieces to SalonThe Establishment, and The Oregonian. Her debut novel, Tornado Weather, was published by Flatiron Books in July 2017.