I had nothing else, in that darkness inhabited by breath.
After thirteen years, a young girl who has lived with the love and privileges of an adored single child learns that she is being returned to another mother. No more will she live by the ocean, with beautiful clothes and clean bedding, now her sleep will be warmed by the body of a sister and bed-wetting. Her life is like a dark fairy-tale, a princess forced to live in poverty, as if punished for some unknown deed. What has she done to be punished so? What sense in living in such filth and destitution, with parents who don’t even really seem to want her back? No longer will she spend happy days in the sun with her best friend Patrizia, nor can her friend’s family save her from this senseless exile.
Her little sister Adriana may be uncultured and ignorant but she is fierce and has a hunger for the the world, more she longs for a closeness with her big sister, the Arminuta (girl returned). Vincenzo, the eldest brother is a mystery, who causes an eruption of confusing emotions within her when he isn’t off with the gypsies or getting beaten by his father. Each day, she longs for her ‘other mother’, she must have had a reason for giving her back, she was ill, could she be now on her deathbed and in desperate need of her care? All she knows is, her ‘real mother’ doesn’t seem to care about her at all, this useless city daughter who can’t even pluck a chicken nor perform domestic tasks. Her real family lives in a foreign world, boisterous, crude, sometimes violent and leaving her deeply lonely despite the presence of many siblings. This feels like a house of shame, parents who have more children than they can afford.
She wants to return to that other life, for now the only way is to relive the memories, telling Adriana about the delicious fresh fish from the market, fish her sibling has never had… no, for them it’s only tuna from a can. Her sister longs for nothing more than to be shown a glimpse of that life, the freedom. Then there is the baby, the youngest of the brood, a child that aches with sickness caused by desperate hunger. A different child, there is so much she doesn’t understand nor perceive about this family, swallowed as she is by her own grief and rejection. Then there is the school, here she is as much an outsider as at home, far more educated than her peers. This is yet another opportunity for her devoted sister to look out for her, whether she likes it or not. Her sister will take hits for her at home too, has protective leanings for her ‘special’ sister, who mustn’t ever be beaten. She can’t do anything right by her mother, doesn’t have the practical sense vital to their existence. Her mother is gruff, meaner than her ‘seaside mamma’ but it’s been a hard life, one that misery has seen fit to hover over. Tragedy isn’t finished with her family. There are also many things she doesn’t know about her biological mother and the story of why she was initially given up.
She must learn to get used to this new life, one that she knows she doesn’t belong in, despite her dream of returning to her true mother. “It’s an enduring emptiness, which I know but can’t get past.” What is mother? Will she ever know again, it’s meaning? Strange to come to love the siblings she learned of so late in her life, regardless of their differences.
It is a story of family and of identity, but one could say class too. Adriana is the heart of it and the beauty of the tale is more in sisterhood, at least that was my takeaway. This is the English debut of the Italian author Donatella Di Pietrantonio, it is beautifully written and engaging. We feel as equally lost and determined as all the characters. Our narrator’s mother does seem to resent her Arminuta, as if it’s easier to feel disgusted by her ‘city, upper class ways’ than own the reasons why her child doesn’t fit into their hardscrabble surroundings. It is a sad novel, and I look forward to more by the author.
Publication Date: July 2, 2019