70% Acrylic 30% Wool

70%

Don’t be fooled by the Italian origin of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool – the narrative voice greets the reader like a cold shower: icy, unfriendly, unexpected – yet invigorating. Its topic is, appropriately, not the Italian sunshine but the English winter:

“One day it was still December. Especially in Leeds where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before.”

The narrator is Camelia, a young Italian woman whose life has been placed on pause since the death of her father. Her studies abandoned, she has returned to care for her mother, who no longer leaves the house, or talks, shaken both by her husband’s death, and the manner of it, in flagrante (that, at least, is Italian) with another woman while his car veers off road into a ditch:

“My mother was ready to be, in a word, thrown away. Yes, I know that’s two words, but it’s better that way: one for her and one for me, because if I have to throw her away, I won’t be far behind.”

WITmonth

The novel’s opening is set in a frozen time, emphasised by the idea of an eternal winter, until she finds badly-made clothes in a dumpster – “Each piece had some kind of defect” – which she begins to wear. The disfigured clothing clearly connects to the damaged life she now leads, but also leads her, fairy-tale fashion, to a young Chinese man, Wen, from whose shop the clothes originated. His offer to teach her Chinese – the subject she had abandoned at university – seems a sign that she can rebuild her life. Now she is able to both talk and leave the house, but her adoption of this new dress code suggests her recovery is fragile:

“I started going out dressed in the dumpster clothes… I paraded all that obscene irregularly on the streets, the sleeves on the seat of my pants, the underarm buttons, errors of a sort that no human being could have made, and thus divine errors.”

Soon she begins to alter her own clothes in a similar way:

“I cut out all the sequins as if they were malignant tumours and replaced them with zig-zag miscarriages from my pajamas. Then I punished the pockets with some canvas patches cut from my backpack. I continued, wounding every pair of pants I owned with patches of red canvas, more or less where blood would run down your leg if you were an Italian journalist and you were fucking an English woman and you died in a ditch.”

Just as she attacks her clothes, so she sabotages her own life by sleeping with Wen’s brother when Wen rebuffs her advances. Di Grado brilliantly portrays the ups and downs of depression, Camelia’s high hopes frequently swooping down to despair again. What carries the novel forward on a fierce tide of emotion is her savage wit, descriptive phrases like “Leeds was immobilized in an orthopaedic back brace of snow”; bitter ironies as when she buys her silent mother a parrot; and the sharp wit which leads to this account of sex, drawn from her job as a translator of washing machine instructions:

“Remove clothes. End of cycle. The water will drain.”

70% Acrylic 30% Wool would perhaps be unbearable without this voice, though conversely it brings us closer to Camelia and therefore more pained by every blow she takes. This is important because the final pages may test the reader’s resolve. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is an unflinching portrayal of a woman in crisis, the kind of book which makes you want to reach into its pages before, in its final line, we are shut out completely.

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12 Responses to “70% Acrylic 30% Wool”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I wonder why Leeds? Sounds a powerful read Grant – you’re doing very well with WIT month!

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    I remember seeing various mentions of this book on Twitter around the time of its release but this is the first review I’ve read in quite a while. For some reason I’m reminded of Ferrante, particularly The Days of Abandonment – maybe it’s the portrayal of a damaged woman with self-destructive tendencies. Any thoughts on that, Grant?

    Great review as ever, btw – I enjoy hearing about the various books you’ve been reading even when they’re not necessarily my cup of tea (or glass of wine in my case!).

  3. bookbii Says:

    I read this one last year when I was exploring more literature in translation. The voice is very unique and carries the story, I think. It is a strangely harsh book, yet funny and the tragedy, the unravelling, kind of creeps up on you. An enjoyable, if hard (in the end) read. Great review.

  4. naomifrisby Says:

    I bought this quite a while ago but haven’t got round to it yet; it sounds like something I’d love. I’m intrigued about the final line. Great review, Grant.

  5. BookerTalk Says:

    You had me confused when I saw the blog title come through on my reader. For a moment I wondered if you’d changed your blog to one about sewing or knitting.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Somehow this never quite tempts me, possibly as the clothes thing seems to me more a novelistic device than a credible one. The Leeds setting is interesting though. Nicely brought out as ever Grant.

    • 1streading Says:

      At least the altering of clothes is a change from the cinema motif of distressed women cutting their hair! I actually thought it was both effective and credible.

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