The Key in the Milk is a unique coming-of-age story: beautiful snapshots of childhood and adolescence as an outsider, underpinned by an uncertain sense of identity. The story progresses in fragments, in memories brought to life by the voice of the narrator through childhood toys, religious festivals, football games, tennis practice, teenage crushes and exam failure. All this is interspersed with trips to Casablanca, a city the protagonist visits for the first time at the age of ten and which he instinctively rejects. Hot, bustling Casablanca with its Arab customs seems more foreign to him than his small town in the Ticino mountains. Although Switzerland feels like home, he can’t help but ponder his identity, raising questions for himself and the reader right through to the final pages: where do any of us come from? Can we truly belong anywhere but in our own memories?
Alexandre Hmine uses brilliantly spare prose to recount his narrator’s memories, following his train of thought from one snapshot to the next. Hmine realistically evokes the way we recall the past, as a combination of vivid, minute details, emotions and smells, with gaps, spaces for the things we perhaps didn’t realise at the time. Each word is carefully chosen to demonstrate the natural way children absorb different cultures and languages.
Recreating this gentle tone and juggling the mixture of Italian, French, Arabic and Swiss dialect, thoughtfully employed by the author to contextualise his characters, will prove an irresistible puzzle for the translator bringing this delightful voice into another language.His debut novel The Key in the Milk won the Studer/Ganz Prize in 2017.