My Mother is a River is the recent offering from new independent publisher Calisi Press. Calisi Press is a publisher committed to bringing out works by contemporary, Italian women writers. I was really pleased to be offered a review copy of what promised to be a delicately rendered story and I am glad to say that I wasn’t disappointed. The writing is beautiful, owing much I am sure to the translator Franca Scarti Simpson.
At under 200 pages this lovely book easily fits into Poppy’s #NovellaNovember which I hope you’re all following. It’s been fantastic.
My Mother is a River is the story of a mother and daughter, the story of their relationship; a love gone wrong from the start.
The narrative switches from first to second person, from the present to the past and back again. Our narrator is a woman with her own life; a partner and a son, but she also must now try and care for the mother Esperia, who she struggled to bond with.
“I am incapable of showing her kindness. I never touch her. I can only imagine being able to caress her, her arms, the hands deformed by arthritis, her cheeks, her head. Her hair’s started to thin out too, as if the withering at work inside her skull were infecting its very roots. It’s like cancer in reverse; it shrivels instead of spreading out. She seems too young for this, she isn’t ready. We are not ready.”
Esperia is in decline, suffering from dementia, and so her daughter talks to her – telling her kindly and with real tenderness the story of her life, the things she is beginning to forget as her own mind cruelly robs her of her memories.
The story she tells is of the mother’s upbringing in Abruzzi, the eldest of six daughters – with the colourful, rural traditions that went with it – pig sticking, dances the social politics of selecting partners. The daughter recounts the story of her grandparents; Esperia’s father who sent his wife the names he had selected for each of his first three daughters in letters from the war, (those first three daughters, each conceived while he was on leave). A man who finally limped home, broken and changed to resume his hard life on the farm and father more daughters. We learn about school days, the villagers and family members who Esperia grew up with. Her adolescence, and how she finally met our narrator’s father, a cousin she hadn’t seen in years, and following dispensation from Rome married him, moving away down the valley to start a new life. Esperia’s life growing up was a hard one, long hours of farm work or house work, and as a young mother her life isn’t any easier, she was simply unable to relax into spending time with her baby.
“Our love went wrong from the beginning. She was too accustomed to sacrifice to allow herself the pleasure of spending time with her baby. Every now and then she’d look up from the ground she was toiling on and towards the bundle she had left under a blanket in the shade of a tree. I was still there. She would have heard a loud cry. She was reassured. She couldn’t understand why at night I would ache so much for her attention and play up to get it, while she had all the housework to catch up with, after a long day.”
Our narrator is honest about the realities of caring for someone with dementia. Cesare, her father, is struggling to cope with the woman his wife has become, but the focus remains that of the daughter. She can’t help but recall the past – the difficult years of her childhood, the times her mother tried to take over when her grandson was born. The layers of the past and present overlap – showing how complex these mother, daughter relationships can be, especially where there has been conflict. The daughter is still smarting over the past, but there is an underlying tenderness. Compelled to visit her mother every couple of days – terrified of what longer separations might mean. The daughter, patiently telling her mother the story of her own life, as she goes about the difficult business of caring for her the best way that she can.
I dreamed of you last night. I came to look for you with Giovanni, but we couldn’t see anyone, only the dusty road crossing the dull green field, a falcon flying above. Then you emerged from the other side of the hill, head first, then your shoulders, your waist, the swing of the hips, all of you. Like a sun rising, a dot becoming a whole circle of light above the line of the horizon.
This is a beautifully expressed little novel, delicately poignant and heartfelt. Hooray for independent publishers like Calisi Press who are able to bring us writers like Donatella Di Pietrantonio.