The Girl at the Door: A Novel by Veronica Raimo

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“After the girl came to see me, I couldn’t get rid of her presence in the house.”

Utopian islands can be just as corrupt as the imperfect, filthy, declining societies people long to escape, all it takes is a germ in their midst, but is the germ a false accusation or a rapist?  Miden and it’s citizens must never transgress against their rules, their society runs on adherence to it’s beliefs, and what’s a bigger violation than the accusation of rape? This act is a stain that can spread and destroy this perfect world. Here they live in a blanket of security, peace after the mysterious “Crash”, something happened in the larger world, and though ‘the worst is over’, according to politicians, it is Miden that “SHE” ( first just a tourist) tells us she wanted to live in, to be safe from the threat of the outside. “He” (the successful professor)  was already a citizen with ‘a prospect of a solid future’ when they met and fell in love.  Miden, where they are obsessed with statistics and the best place for “Quality of life”, encompassing “trust in the future, social equality, human rights, etc” but the most telling for this story is its supply of  “women’s freedom”.

The novel opens with “She” answering the knock of a visitor at their door, who asks her “Are you the professor’s wife?” 

“She” the girlfriend, doesn’t yet realize the enormity of what this former student, this skinny, pretty young girl is about to reveal. Pregnant with the professor’s child (carrying his very future in her belly), how does she face the ugliness of what this stranger is accusing him of, what it will do to this sheltered life they live, that they worked so hard for? Certainly the man she loves isn’t capable of such things, and why now? It was two years ago, in the past, right?

“Because I didn’t know then. Now I know.”

What is a crime, how do we come to understand that we have been a victim? What if youth was a blinder, and we didn’t know how sorely we were being wronged? What if the awakening to the crime happens when the wisdom of a few years sheds light on it? Is it then still a crime? Do crimes have an expiration date? Do people get to escape punishment because time was on their side, because someone didn’t know better how to protect themselves, if they didn’t realize what was happening at the time?  Is it a crime if someone met with you willingly, if you allowed it, didn’t have the sense to prevent it, to say no? What if it becomes a crime in the telling and others examine it and help you see the ‘affair’ framed darker? After all, she was a ‘young student’, isn’t that crime enough? Her youth, his position of power as her teacher?

Through “Him” it’s a wildly different story, from the very act of saving her panties ‘for months’. For “Him” it was a wildly erotic time and he can’t believe the ‘Commission” and most especially his girlfriend is taking any of this seriously. The absurdity of it all! This could cost him his enviable life in Miden, his very relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, his future! To him it was an affair (in the sense it goes against the student/ teacher rules, a sordid thing), ‘wrong’ sure, but an affair, not anything violent or criminal.

Who do we believe? With the accusation “She” goes back and chews on their relationship, from their first meeting to the pregnancy and everything in between, as if picking for clues for or against his character. “She” has a bigger role in the entire investigation, in whether he is ‘unworthy’ of being a citizen or not, to be banished or not. The accuser, and how “She”(the girlfriend) is irritated, annoyed by her, curious about her behavior, looking for ‘theater’, almost as an escape out of believing the worst about”Him” or as evidence of his innocence. This is a provocative moment in the novel. If you attribute it to our current news, wonder at the women who stand by their man, why, why the anger is often aimed at the alleged victim, it begins to make sense. It also lends people insight into why in some cases women wait, until they are adults, until they are braver- to take the steps to search for justice. On the flip side of the coin, what about the men? Are they monsters, are they guilty if in their head they are reading the situation, the acts completely wrong?

This is an engaging novel, but Miden itself sort of got in the way for me. I didn’t see it as a Utopia personally, the people came off as holier than thou, above humanity as trying to strive for some flawless society, I mean- who decides? Then again, what sort of world do we live in now, where people still blame women when they are assaulted? Hmmm… What about cases where there is consent, if you consent, how is a man to know he is hurting you? That is a question people still pick over. Throw youth into the mix, the awe of those in power, shouldn’t someone be reigning in their desires? Shouldn’t it be the person with the power, and yet too we are all humans and flawed. It’s a slippery slope.

What beats in me is the “WHY NOW”… that’s a current question in many cases, allowing disbelief, doubt in the accuser to slip in for many people. There isn’t just one answer.

It’s interesting to me that there isn’t naming of the characters, they remain HIM/HER, the accuser… I don’t know if it’s intended but it’s like you protect all parties without thinking about them beyond their sexual identity (male, female). Then I went off the rails and in my thinking, naming is vital- isn’t it? Particularly if that name is loaded, ‘rich, successful, beloved’ it absolutely alters how strangers look at an accusation. Naming changes things, for good and bad.  The reader feels sympathy for each of them, and disgust here and there. Just who risks the most? There is selfish thought, of course there is, we are the center of our story, anyone that disrupts our security, our future can easily be seen as the guilty party. It was engaging, but Miden was a weird society. You believe each of their views, even if they discredit themselves too.

Publication Date: October 18, 2019

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press, Black Cat

 

 

 

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A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, Ann Goldstein (Translator)

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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

Europa Editions