In the week that the last old-style Man Booker prize was awarded, one can't help wishing that in its bid to widen its horizons, the prize organisers had decided in future to include English translations as well as all works in English published in Britain.

Were that the case, a novel such as The Mussolini Canal would be a shoo-in.

Winner of Italy's prestigious Strega Prize in 2010, this is Antonio Pennacchi's second novel, his first, Il Fasciocomunista, having won the Premio Napoli. As the labyrinthine story unfolds, the reader scarcely needs Pennacchi's prefatory note that: "For what it's worth, this is the book I came into the world to write." In every line The Mussolini Canal feels personal, as if its plot and cast emerge not from the writer's imagination but from his marrow. A hefty work, of more than 500 pages, it is so beguiling one does not want it to end. Rambunctious and picaresque, it is the story of a generation of poverty-stricken peasants from the Veneto and Tuscany, who were enticed south in the 1930s by the promise of land in the dreaded Pontine marshes, near Rome. Until that time, nobody sane would have gone there, the place a mosquito-infested swamp. But under Mussolini's fledgling rule, the marshes were properly drained for the first time in history, allowing land to be reclaimed, and many lives with it.

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The author, a former nightshift factory worker who only left that job when his writing brought him success, is the descendant of those who migrated. Recounted in the first person by a spirited but unnamed narrator, The Mussolini Canal offers an affectingly vivid portrait of Italy at a time when it was, as the narrator says, the laughing stock of Europe. The Peruzzi clan at the heart of the story do not like to be laughed at, nor do they enjoy going hungry. As their story unreels, it becomes clear why they, and so many others, enthusiastically embraced Fascism.

To his listener's occasional interjections and protests, the narrator replies: "There's never been freedom in Italy, so how could Fascism have done away with it?" Later he describes the tomatoes, specially selected by Il Duce to grow on the Pontine marshes, of which the children would parrot: "These tomatoes are quite simply better. They're modern, and they're fascist." Years later, when the enchantment had faded, the narrator reflects, "But now, I'm told - and this may not be true, you could try looking into it more thoroughly - they use the skins of [these] tomatoes to make bullet-proof vests."

Disillusionment extended far beyond tomatoes, but the Peruzzi family for all their flaws - violence, murder, theft and lust - remained unswervingly true to themselves throughout this period, exhibiting a rare sort of honesty in their dealings, whether nefarious or saintly. One other constant is their courage.

As the story ducks and weaves, a carousel of Italian domestic life and politics emerges. Anchoring the tale are the grandparents, Peruzzi senior a gentle man who is good with children, his wife both beautiful and gutsy. Rumour has it that she slept with Mussolini. Il Duce may have wished he had, and she certainly flirted with him whenever he visited, but she would never have betrayed her husband, whose death years later led within days to her own.

The offspring of these turtle doves, and their many cousins, created a tribe so vast that "soon there'd be enough of us to work the whole of the Po Valley on our own". In those days, children were cheap labour. Quick to grow up, they could be found imitating their fascist forebears before they could walk: "In our houses, even the youngest children, those who were still crawling around on their hands and knees ... moved around under the table with knives between their teeth."

One such was Uncle Pericles, around whom the novel revolves. A thug, a family man, as short-tempered as he is brave, he is a model fascist, and a tender husband. As the reader follows him from headstrong youth to the battlefields of Italy, the novel's grip tightens. How could the Peruzzis cope if Pericles perished?

Though The Mussolini Canal is a keyhole on the most venal, dark period of Italy's modern history and those who played a role in its shaping, it is above all a depiction of the peasantry whose life in this era had barely changed in essentials - and hardship - since the middle ages.

Brilliantly controlling his material, retracing his steps, repeating stories from fresh angles, or simply reminding the reader of what they already know, Pennacchi's style holds an echo of early Gunter Grass, but is infused with a spirit and tone that are entirely original. High among its charms is his rich vein of humour, a mordant leavening to otherwise grim material, as the Peruzzi family picks its way through the debris of half a century of troubles.

Gathering pace slowly, as one grows familiar with its dizzying cast and the tale's back and forth telling, it builds in tension like a spring being tightly coiled, creating a vigorous, unrepentant, anarchic picture of a clan surviving despite chaos all around. It is a truly fine novel, demonstrating a remarkable talent, Antonio Pennacchi's high ambition matched word for word by his artistry.