Posts Tagged ‘Donatella Di Pietrantonio’

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

This week is the novellas in translation week of novellas in November and A Girl Returned is a novel by an author I have read before during Novellas in November – I believe this is the third of her books to be translated into English.

So many of the books in my house have been bought because I have seen other people online talking about how good they are. This novel is one of them, a novella I saw Claire from Word by Word talking about on Twitter, and as I had read two books by the same author previously I knew I wanted it immediately. I bought it in October so that I could read it during Novellas in November – it slips in just under the 200 page limit at 170 pages – and manages to be both heart-rending and brilliantly compelling at the same time. It is a novel about mothers and daughters, family secrets and the nature of belonging.

“There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.”

As the novel opens a girl drags a large suitcase up the stairs to an apartment she has never been to before – the door is opened by her younger sister – the two girls have never met before. With no warning, and virtually no explanation a thirteen year old girl is taken from the people she has always believed to be her parents and sent to live with strangers. This is her birth family, mother, father, and siblings of whom she had no previous knowledge. They turn out to be relatives of her adoptive father – an arrangement had been made between the two families when she was a baby. Now she is thrust into a totally new world, where they even speak differently, in a town a long bus ride away from the coastal city where she had previously grown up, gone to school, and made friends. The woman she thinks of still as her mother having retreated from her in the weeks before her departure – had become something of a shadowy figure spending more and more time in bed. The girl numbed by shock hopes that when her mother is well, she will ask for her to go home.

“I was the Arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.”

The household the girl arrives in is one utterly different to the one she left behind – where she was an only child growing up in sight of the beach, with her own room. Here there are a number of noisy, squabbling siblings, Adriana is a few years younger than her, they connect almost immediately – though the girl is shocked that she must share a bed with her sister – while her older, teenage brothers occupy the other side of the bedroom. Not all the siblings are kind and welcoming. Adriana wets the bed constantly – there is an awful lot to get used to straight away. There is a kind of loneliness here that is terrible, I’m sure most of us could imagine ourselves thrust into an unfamiliar environment like this – and know how destabilising that would feel.

She thinks of the woman who bore her as ‘the mother’ – unable to call her that by name – she finds ways around ever using the word. She stands out in the family, a curiosity to people from outside the family – and treated differently by those within it. Her eldest brother Vincenzo is drawn to her in a way that’s not altogether appropriate – all in all it is a time of readjustment and confusion. She doesn’t feel like someone who was wanted – she feels her return was forced upon this family who are clearly struggling financially.

“I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family.”

She also stands out by virtue of her scholastic abilities – soon marked out by the teacher as someone who should go on to high school in the city she has just left. This possibility a beacon of hope on a shaky horizon – though as Adriana comes to rely on her new older sister’s presence, clinging to her and reacting with jealousy to anything she thinks might take her sister away, the girl has a new responsibility to consider for the first time. Adriana’s fierce love for her sister is one of the few joys for the girl – and while it has the potential to be a little destructive – the narrator is clearly looking back on it from a distance of years with a lot of affection.

As time goes on, the girl’s assumptions about the reason for her return are shaken – it is something she is keen to get to the bottom of.  Her sense of self having been so severely rocked is gradually re-built amid the tension and conflict of a new family.

Of the three novellas by Donatella Di Pietrantonio I have read to date, this is undoubtedly my favourite.

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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. laquilla

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.


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my mother river

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.


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