Translated by Ann Goldstein. New York, NY: Europa Editions, 2019. 176 pages. $16.00.
In the gripping new Italian novel in translation A Girl Returned, a young girl’s adoptive parents suddenly bring her back to her birth mother, thirteen years later, as if she were an expired item. Adoptions are typically permanent, no? Not in this novel by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, who deftly grapples here with the holy trifecta of human emotions (and thus, fiction): love, longing and loss.
The stunning turn of events propels the girl into a new world. The first person she meets in the other home is Adriana, a sister whose existence she has heretofore known nothing about. The move to the new house forces her to exchange life as an only child for a home where she shares a bedroom with four siblings, including three teenage boys. Her sense of alarm (and the reader’s) is underscored when she tries to escape by pretending she has left something in her adoptive father’s car. Once inside the car, she activates the locks, begging him to take her back. As he forcibly removes her, the narrator comments, “In his grip I no longer recognized the hand of the taciturn father I’d lived with until that morning.” It seems an act of unmitigated cruelty by the father—and in one way, it surely is—but maverick plot twists revealed later in this startlingly suspenseful book will somewhat attenuate that verdict.
The relationship with Adriana is transformative—and in its own way, innovative—but at first, it’s a bit like the country mouse meeting the city mouse (the “girl” in the title is from an unidentified city by the beach in the Southern Italian province of Abruzzo, while the family to which she is sent lives in the countryside). Although already ten years old, Adriana still wets the bed, and she has never seen the ocean or a city.
While settling in, the girl tries to piece together what happened to send her into exile. The mother she had known from infancy was confined to bed when she left. Was she gravely ill? Has she died? Months pass without any direct communication, and a sense of disorientation pervades the girl’s thoughts, which makes for thrilling reading. At one point, she says, “I didn’t believe my parents would really find the courage to give me back.” A small movement can be felt in the reader’s chest every time a line like that emerges—and such lines emerge often in this book.
The narrator gets a crash course in survival—in this case, surviving a large, hectic, rural household flirting with poverty. Everything has changed, even if she’s only a regional bus ride away from her first home (at thirteen, the distance covered by a bus ride can seem quite long). She is ridiculed by her birth mother for not knowing how to de-feather a chicken, and has to contend with the often hostile glances of her brothers, whom she can hear responding to their teenage urges in the early morning hours.
All the while she pines for her “other” mother. Her absence provides the plot’s most pressing mystery: when will the narrator see her again and why does it seem as though she is deliberately disappearing from her daughter’s life?
I’d fallen out of her thoughts. There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word ‘mamma’ 100 times until it lost all meaning and was more like a speech exercise for my mouth. I’d been orphaned by two mothers. One had given me up while I still had her breastmilk 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.
There, in the space of one paragraph, are those age-old tensions of love, longing, and loss. Di Pietrantonio then strains them through a kind of thematic sieve: motherhood. It’s a topic the author has plumbed to great effect in her previous novels. The mother figure is the central subject of her first book, My Mother is a River, and is also prominent in her second novel, Bella Mia, about a family’s fate following the 2009 Aquila earthquake.
For much of this novel, published in Italy in 2017, the narrator is caught between two mothers. Di Pietrantonio often figuratively—and skillfully—sets one mother against the other: “Every Saturday the mother in the town was obliged to give me a small sum, which came by some means or other from the mother on the coast.”
The author is a keen observer of Italian life and her native Abruzzo, a frequent setting for her fiction. She writes about the “women of the neighborhood whose only entertainment was going to see the dead.” Later at a funeral, she writes, “A circle of black umbrellas rose around us, in condolence.” Such gorgeous descriptions make a fine marriage with the swift pace of the plot.
Amid a series of losses, the girl gains something: Adriana, the sister she never knew. They share a bed from the first night. “Every night she lent me the sole of her foot to hold against my cheek. I had nothing else in that darkness inhabited by breath.” The two become inseparable, with Adriana admiring and also protecting the narrator. She, too, gains a brother in Vincenzo—more than a brother, in fact. He is kind, exhibiting a benign curiosity. The scene in which they visit the beach could be used to illustrate the appeal of summertime or childhood. How their relationship evolves is best left unsaid, but this reviewer may still be recovering from it. Similarly, the novel’s big reveal is a narrative sucker punch.
The novel’s English publication arrives at a high point for Italian women’s fiction. Partly due to the success of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, authors like Di Pietrantonio are getting their due. While largely unknown in the English-speaking world, Di Pietrantonio is an important voice in contemporary Italian fiction. This novel (L’Arminuta in Italian) won the prestigious Premio Campiello prize, one of Italy’s highest literary honors.
Like Ferrante, Di Pietrantonio excels at creating realistic, compelling female characters such as the “girl” of the book’s title. Preternaturally intelligent, she endures the unimaginable, and aces her classes while doing it. Yet she is blessedly three-dimensional; her anguish spills over, at times violently. When the key plot turn is revealed, she grabs the hand of her birth mother, spilling hot coffee everywhere, as she demands to know why she wasn’t told the truth about her own life.
It’s notable that Europa Editions, the American arm of Ferrante’s Italian publisher, has published this novel. It’s helping to revolutionize how American readers view, in particular, Italian fiction by women authors. Di Pietrantonio’s two previous novels were published in translation by a small, now defunct, English press. A Girl Returned will introduce Di Pietrantonio to a much larger potential audience.
The choice of translator is also notable. Good translation depends on good writing skills, and the English translation is beautiful. That’s to be expected of Ann Goldstein, who through the translation of the Ferrante novels and works by Primo Levi, among others, is one of the foremost translators working today.
Goldstein is surely dealing with incredible source material here, but her artful turns of phrase are key to why the book remains engrossing in English. From the novel’s first page, Goldstein’s word choices fluidly transfer the elegant Italian prose into English. One line reads, “I struggled up the stairs with an unwieldy suitcase and a bag of jumbled shoes.” The original Italian verb isn’t “struggle” but in concert with the rest of the sentence, is a perfect choice, and the adjective “unwieldy” also slides into place. A page later, the stench of those jumbled shoes “wafted from the bag”; the original Italian is plainer but “wafted” hits the right note.
The novel ends with a scene between the two sisters, highlighting the relationship that supplies one of the novel’s rare moments of light and which gorgeously dramatizes how adversity can produce something singular and glorious. To the extent that the novel’s plot turns seemed to cost me something emotionally, Di Pietrantonio’s book is something singular and glorious.