Archive for the ‘Donatella Di Pietrantonio’ Category

A Girl Returned

August 30, 2019

Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s novel A Girl Returned, newly translated by Ann Goldstein, begins with our narrator, then a thirteen-year-old girl, returning to the family she has never known. The door is opened by her younger sister, Adriana, “keeping her sharp eyes on me,” her “dark look”

“…scorched the gilt buckles of my new shoes, moved up along the blue pleats of the dress, still rigid from the store.”

The difference between them is immediately obvious to Adriana, whose first instinct is to claim the dress once it outgrows her sister, who, in the meantime, is both angry and confused at her return – or, as she sees it, her abandonment by the ‘parents’ she has lived with all her life. “I want to live in my house, with you,” she tells her uncle, “If I did something wrong tell me, and I won’t do it again.” Her experience – of being taken from a poor family to live with wealthier, childless relatives – was not unheard of in Italy in the 1970s, and her return (the title, in both Italian and English, suggests she is treated as an object) allows Di Pietrantonio to examine the class divide which existed, and continues to exist to this day, in a striking and affecting manner.

Though A Girl Returned has been referred to as Di Pietrantonio’s English language debut, it is, in fact, her third novel to be translated, with both My Mother is a River and Bella Mia previously published by (very) small press, Calisi. These mark her out as a writer interested in situations of intense emotional impact, testing her characters’ resilience, just as the narrator, here, is tested. Her new family are not only much coarser than her adoptive parents, but neglectful in both care and affection. On her first night she discovers:

“My first parents didn’t recall until after dinner that there wasn’t a bed for me in the house.”

When her older brother, Vincenzo, is hit by her father, “only I was frightened, who had never seen violence close up.” When told to pluck a chicken, she replies, “I can’t, it scares me.” Her situation is made worse by the fact that she is offered no explanation as to why her aunt has returned her to her parents – something which allows the novel to work to some extent as a mystery – and, moreover, her aunt seems determined to have no contact with her at all. Even when she is finally able to return to her aunt’s house, she finds it empty:

“I rang the bell into the emptiness of the rooms and after a vain wait rang it over and over again, for a long time. I leaned my forehead against the bell and stood like that until the heat became unbearable.”

From the moment her uncle returns after having taken her to her “family that was mine against my will” (she thinks for a moment he has changed his mind) with a tub of ice cream, her adoptive family’s only contribution to her new life is entirely material – arranging for the narrator and Adriana to have bunk beds, for example. At first the narrator sees this as a sign that her aunt is still thinking of her: when she receives some money each week she “believed that I was receiving, along with the coins, the warmth of her palm.” Later, for example when her aunt visits while she is out, she is angry:

“A fierce rage was starting to swell in my stomach… Suddenly a destructive energy pervaded me, as if I’d had an injection whose effect was instantaneous.”

Her relations with her new family, however, are not entirely negative, although her attraction to her brother (“We weren’t used to being siblings and we didn’t believe it completely”) is both understandable and worrying at the same time. It is with Adriana that she finds the most affection, the physical closeness of sharing a bed (which continues even when the bunk beds are bought) slowly becoming an emotional closeness. Adriana looks out for her in the home, and when she starts school leaves her classroom to check on her:

“I wanted to see if my sister’s all right. She’s from the city.”

Conversely, the narrator takes Adriana out of her limited environment, widening her horizons, aware that “in the alien setting, she was defenceless.” Later she will come to worry about leaving her:

“Who would take out her baby teeth when I returned to the city?”

She also comes to love the family’s youngest child, Giuseppe, at one point being the only one who will comfort him:

“I don’t think I’d ever felt the pleasure of such intimacy with any creature.”

A Girl Returned, then, is not only a commentary on poverty, but a coming of age story, in which the narrator must unexpectedly develop independence and resilience. That she is largely successful (and because the novel is told from her point of view as an adult) is the reason why it is not a tale of misery despite moments of intense unhappiness. Comparisons with Elena Ferrante are perhaps inevitable but this is a lighter book, though in no way lacking in serious intent. Though it may not be Di Pietrantonio’s English language debut, hopefully it will win her the wider audience she deserves.

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