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Alex in Leeds: "Watch out for Viola Di Grado."

Date: Dec 11 2012

I eagerly seized a review copy of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool when it was offered by We Love This Book recently because it is, as far as I can remember, the only contemporary novel I’ve ever read that is set in the city I live in, Leeds. The fact that it was the debut novel of a 23 year old Italian-born/London-resident authoress and I first read about it over at Marie’s blog, The Boston Bibliophile, rather than via a European blog only added to my curiosity.
The first thing I should point out that it is not really Leeds that is being portrayed in the novel, it is a nightmarish Leeds where it is always winter because for Camelia, who is sharing her story with a mixture of boredom and anger that is heartbreaking at times, for Camelia, it is always winter and would be wherever she was. You could read this even if you’ve never heard of this corner of England as these quotes gives a taste of how distorted our narrator’s perspective is:
‘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. It snowed all day, except for a brief autumnal parenthesis in August that stirred the leaves a little and then went back to whence it had come, like a warm up band before the headliner.’
(Opening paragraph, page 1)
‘I turned towards Hyde Park. The sky merged seamlessly with the ground, white on white, a universal conspiracy of whiteness, betrayed only by the back flashes of crows that now and again glided over the grass. But when they dared stop for more than a few seconds, even they risked being trounced by a clump of snow lying in ambush in the crooks of trees. Like some demon drenched without warning by the Holy Spirit, one poor frightened little crow shook off its sudden white coat. I watched it for a couple of minutes as it spread its wings.
There was no hope for anyone or anything.’
(Pages 20-21)
You see? That’s Camelia’s Leeds rather than a real, concrete place. (It doesn’t really snow much here anyway. It floods.)
Camelia’s life has shut down after the embarrassing death of her father and his mistress left her and her mother reeling in shock. Her mother has retreated into silence and instead of Camelia continuing with her Chinese studies at the University of Leeds she is now trapped with a silent, grieving parent who should really be looking after her. Surviving on the pay cheque of her boring and reclusive job as a translator of washing machine manuals she yoyos in mood dramatically. One minute she is telling you how much she hates Leeds and pulling flowers to pieces, berating them for growing and offering hope; the next moment she is trying to reach out and tentatively start her life again.
With no support from her mother and no real idea of what she wants out of life, her existence is a strange, lonely and angry place where it is endless December until a man who owns a clothes shop and can help her continue her studies in Chinese smiles at her and suddenly her shell breaks (‘The onset of specificity happened right after the lesson’). Suddenly time might just be moving forward again after 3 years of nothingness… But restarting her life is much harder than Camelia imagined.
‘I was laying the foundations for another bout of verbal fasting, but how could I go back to silence after taking such a big step? I had committed suicide in reverse, throwing myself into life without a parachute, and down there, naturally, another goddamn hole was waiting for me.’
(page 104)
70% Acrylic 30% Wool is a powerful novella. It’s not little in any sense of the word.
Pulling no punches at all, it captures the rawness of grief and the way it bleeds across a life in precise, violent, calligraphic strokes. It is tender only in the honesty with which it shares Camelia’s voice – melodramatic and sullen by turns, fragile and full of rage. What looks like authorial excess and flashness at the start of the book is actually pretty authentic for Camelia’s desperate attempts to hang on to both her misery and the reader’s attention.
Shortlisted for the Strega and winner of the 2011 Campiello First Novel prize, this is a scarily impressive debut. Di Grado has an amazing talent for detail and imagery that makes this one of the most vivid books I’ve read this year if not the most comfortable. I didn’t enjoy it exactly but I am not going to forget it anytime soon.
Watch out for Viola Di Grado, she appears to be as comfortable in the role of cobra as she is in the role of snake charmer. I look forward, I think, to seeing what she does next.

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