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Tony’s Reading List. “Hollow Heart [. . .] is just as strongly written as its predecessor, taking the black, manic tone of the earlier book and pushing it into a new territory – beyond the grave.”

Date: Jun 25 2015

Italian? Yep.
Female? Uh-huh.
Published by Europa Editions? That’s right.
Frantic, sweeping, emotion-laden writing? Correct.
New book out in English in 2015? Absolutely.
Elena Ferrante? Nope…

*****
If you believed Ferrante was the only female Italian author in town, think again – today’s post looks at another great writer, a name you might be hearing more about in the future. Viola Di Grado’s debut novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, was published by Europa Editions a couple of years back to a fair bit of praise from online reviewers, even if it didn’t receive a lot of publicity in mainstream outlets. Hopefully, this time around she’ll get a little more attention – it’s certainly a book that merits it.

Hollow Heart (translated by Antony Shugaar, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is just as strongly written as its predecessor, taking the black, manic tone of the earlier book and pushing it into a new territory – beyond the grave. The novel begins with an end as Dorotea Giglio is introduced to the reader in dramatic fashion:

“In 2011, the world ended: I killed myself.”
p.11 (Europa Editions, 2015)

From here, you’d expect the book to backtrack and explain how she got to this point, and it does to some extent. However, Dorotea is not a woman to let death get in her way, and the main focus of Hollow Heart is on what happens next, with the writer examining the topic of life after death, both above and below ground…

Anyone who has read Di Grados’ first novel will feel at home here in her dark story of an underworld which spends much of its time above the surface. The first part, especially, contains breathless writing, aggressive, sweeping and angry – Dorotea’s voice is sardonic and biting, and wonderful throwaway lines abound:

“At the supermarket across the street I bought red plastic plates, red forks, red party cups, a bottle of cheap spumante, a frozen paella, and a bag of single-blade disposable razors. There was a two-for-one sale, but I thought one death would be enough for me.” (pp.20/1)

This beginning of the book is a maelstrom of passionate outrage as the young woman attempts to come to terms with her life – and death.

Gradually, we are told how and why she got to this point, with a failed relationship and long-term depression pushing her towards an early grave. It’s only later, though, that we learn (and see) that the mental illness she faced (and faces) is a family affair:

She went to bed. I lay down next to her. She turned over on her side, one hand under her right cheek. I turned over on my side, one hand under my right cheek.
Two hours later the phone rang.
“Ciao, sweetheart, it’s Aunt Clara, can I talk to your mama?”
“Ciao. No, you can’t, she’s sleeping.”
“Why didn’t you go to school today?”
“I have to stay here to make sure Mama doesn’t die.”
She decided to come over. (p.43)

With a mother struggling to cope, Dorotea is forced to grow up quickly, and while she makes it to her mid-twenties, it’s a wonder that her departure didn’t happen earlier.

While Hollow Heart does explore Dorotea’s life, it’s her death that is the main focus of the novel, as she discovers that life really does go on. She eventually becomes a part of a community of spirits, meeting more people and welcoming the recently departed to their new world (even if suicides are the social outcasts of the afterlife…).

The idea of life after death may be a cheering one, but in Di Grado’s mind it’s not as good as it sounds. There’s nothing to do as you’re unable to feel – death is merely a continuation of life where you have become invisible to the living, ghosts consigned to the past:

“Here’s the worst thing about death: the inherent racism of the human language. While the living gorge themselves on the present indicative, all we can hope for are moldy leftovers of the past tense. If you want even the tiniest helping of a verb in the present tense, you must necessarily have the obscene badge of a beating heart pinned to your chest.” (p.75)

The only comfort is to be found in watching the living and taking vicarious pleasure in their miserable struggles…

…or in watching yourself… You see, while the spirit remains, the body does not, and Dorotea takes great pleasure in observing the slow, steady decay of her earthly remains (deciding to keep a dispassionate – and somewhat disturbing – diary of her return to the earth). It’s not only the body that decays, though. As Dorotea’s mother grieves, the family house, too, falls slowly apart, adding to the filth and squalor pervading the book.

Hollow Heart is a heartbreaking story of the girl and then the woman, a poor soul tainted by her DNA, destined to kill herself, only to find that’s there’s more to come. The book is very similar in many ways to Di Grado’s first novel, but perhaps even more depressing. Where 70% Acrylic… maintains the rage throughout its long Leeds December, the initial anger and bile displayed in Hollow Heart slowly gives way to numbness. In the end, Dorotea seems to (forgive the pun) give up the ghost…

Returning to my introduction, the Ferrante comparison may have been a little contrived, but there’s more linking the writers than gender, nationality and publisher. Di Grado is from Catania in Sicily which, while further south than Naples, is still far away from the big, richer northern cities. Both writers have examined difficult mother-daughter relationships in their works (compare Di Grado’s books with Ferrante’s Troubling Love or The Lost Daughter). More importantly, though, both writers inject their work with emotion, their stories pushed along by anger and betrayal. If you like Ferrante’s work (and many do), you could do worse than give her younger counterpart a try ;)

For me, Hollow Heart isn’t quite as good as 70% Acrylic 30 % Wool, but there’s no shame in that (I reread the earlier book after finishing this one and was blown away again). With all the fuss about publishing female writers in the media recently, one of the areas overlooked was exactly who we should be reading. Let me address that now – Ferrante is one, naturally, and Di Grado is certainly on that list too. Off you go, then ;)