Monday, August 28, 2017

Two Italian Women Writers

Women In Translation Month is almost over, and I have hardly shared any reviews! I've been reading quite a lot but have been so busy I haven't had time to sit down and share my thoughts on my reading. I'll try to catch up a little before August ends, though I know I'll be finishing off a couple more great reads this week so will be reviewing those later.

Anyhow, to start, I'd like to share two Italian novels that I encountered on my public library shelves. I liked one more than the other, see if you can guess which ;)

Accabadora / Michela Murgia; translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella
Berkeley: CounterPoint, c2012. (Italian c2009)
175 p.

I picked up this brief book at work and read it during lunch hours. That proved a little difficult as I didn't want to put it down! 

The premise is that Maria Listru, the fourth and rather unwanted youngest daughter of a poor villager in Sardinia is adopted as a "soul-child" by local widow & seamstress Bonaria Urrai. 

Maria learns the trade (with lots of wonderful talk about fitting suits and stitching up outfits) but she also learns, eventually, about Tzia Bonaria's other, more secret trade: she is an accabadora - essentially, a midwife for the dying, the "last mother" for many souls wishing to die.

The book delves into Maria's innocent judgement of this profession, takes Maria away to the continent where she works as a nanny for a rich Italian family, and returns her home again wiser and more mature when she gets word that Bonaria Urrai is dying. 

It's not overwritten - the language is compact but highly evocative of rural Sardinia in the 1950s. The female characters are wonderfully drawn, and the small, enclosed society of their village is clearly outlined, with all their beliefs and superstitions -- and gossip. 

This was an award-winner in its original Italian, and I can see why. It reads very quickly and smoothly, but tells a deeply significant story. I enjoyed the characters and the setting, finding that these were the strengths of this novel.

There is also a small glossary included, so that some of the local foods and professions are called by their local names, which I found added some verisimilitude.

Been Here a Thousand Years / Mariolina Venezia; translated from the Italian by Marina Harss
New York: FSG, 2010, c2009.
263 p.

This is another book I plucked from the library shelves on impulse. The description, a family saga over five generations of Italian history, seemed intriguing, as well as the inclusion of some embroidery both on the cover and in the blurb.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite live up to my hopes. Told in retrospect by Gioia, the last of the line (so far), this book starts out strongly, with powerful imagery of Don Falcone starting off the family with money, angst and an outpouring of golden oil flowing down the streets. The sense of magical realism is strong; they seem like fabled ancestors. But the book is full of unfulfilled and unhappy people, and so many of them that the family tree that is included needs to be referred to quite often. The book is told in a series of vignettes so the tone changes quite a bit between the opening and the final chapters which are more contemporary, and Gioia's own story in her own words. Unfortunately I didn't find the family, or Gioia's storytelling, all that compelling. 

In the blurb, the phrase "with their hands they create delicate and complex embroideries, while their minds embroider endless, elaborate stories" caught my attention. But there isn't much needlework in the book except for one aunt who crochets a lot, spectacularly, but as a kind of compensation. So that element was a little oversold, at least for this embroidering reader. 

It was an interesting idea for a book, and parts of it, as I've mentioned, were memorable and quite wonderful. The writing was very elaborate and poetic, and translated very readably, as well. This was a good book, but just not the most fabulous read for me -- it was ambitious, but because of that it was also too disjointed for my tastes. 

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