Translated by Franca Scarti Simpson
Bella Mia is the second novel by Donatella Di Pietrantonio translated into English and re-issued by Calisi Press. It was shortlisted for the prestigious Strega prize in Italy in 2014. Having already read and enjoyed My mother is a River by this author I was delighted to be offered a review copy of Bella Mia – which I enjoyed even more.
Like that previous novel, family is very much at the heart of this novel. The intricacies, history and frailties of family relationships are explored against the backdrop of the aftermath of the 2009 earthquake in the Abruzzo region of Italy.
In the early hours of April 6th 2009 a devastating earthquake hit L’Aquila, killing hundreds of people and causing catastrophic damage to homes and businesses.
Our narrator is a thirty something, single woman, she once lived alone in her own apartment, working out of her own studio from where she produced pieces of painted ceramics. Now she lives in the temporary housing (C.A.S.E) that the government erected following the earthquake, with her mother and sixteen-year-old nephew. She has only just managed to get back into her studio – three years after the earthquake struck. Many, displaced people still await the renovation of their homes inside the ‘Red Zone’ where they aren’t even permitted to go.
One of the people lost in that earthquake was Olivia; the twin sister of our narrator. Now her son, Marco, her mother and twin sister are still coming to terms with this altered world, the world without Olivia in it. They must learn to live together, stepping uneasily around each other’s grief. Their neighbour Lorenza mourns the loss of her own small daughter. Everyday Olivia’s mother goes to the cemetery with tools for tending graves, buying flowers on the way. This housing complex is filled with similarly displaced people like them, living their lives in the shadow of the events of April 6th 2009.
“He chews on his own silence.
I can’t quite love this boy, not completely. Tall, skinny, a body made of broken lines, with no curves, an unexpected fragility in the outline of his legs just under the knee. His grandmother still treats him like a little boy; as for me, I don’t know how to approach him. He’s an adolescent, he seems younger sometimes.”
Marco is angry, he can be difficult to be around, but he has had so much to come to terms with. When his mother died, she had already been separated from her husband, Marco’s father who had left Olivia for another woman. Had it not been for this betrayal, Olivia and her son would not have been living in L’Aquila when the earthquake struck. Roberto; who Olivia and her sister first knew at school, still lives in Rome, coming to visit his son from time to time. Marco has chosen to stay in L’Aquila with his grandmother and aunt. Now Marco secretly ventures into the Red Zone, to the damaged apartment he once shared with his mother, the apartment that will be his one day, trying to make a few small improvements to the place himself. He finds an unlikely friend, in a small, abandoned dog, who he later calls Bric. Marco had been behaving oddly, taking food from the fridge, finding reasons to go out. His aunt observes him from a distance, becoming resigned immediately to Marco keeping the dog in their apartment.
“The dog worships him, ears lowered. At one point, unable to contain itself, it licks the pimples within tongues reach, as if they were swollen with honey. Marco laughs and pretends to pull back, but only for an instant, worried the dog might take his sudden rejection to heart. They belong to each other already, it’s too late to separate them. They each know what devotion looks like.”
Our narrator meanwhile, remembers her sister, who she can’t help but think of as being, prettier, cleverer and more popular than she ever was. She wonders whether, the wrong sister died.
“Tomorrow is our birthday. The third, since. I couldn’t have stayed at home, I would have been useless. Tomorrow I would have nothing for the son who has lost a mother, the mother who has lost a daughter, I could not console them. My very presence would confirm that it’s the best one who is missing.”
There is a wonderful sense of the past and present being inextricably linked, memory plays a big part in the telling of this poignant story, the reader can feel the loss suffered by these characters on almost every page.
Donatella Di Pietrantonio has written a beautiful novel of reconstruction, family, memory and loss. Ultimately there is a feeling of hope however, a feeling of things slowly moving forward.