The trouble with language is that it doesn’t have any taste or smell or colour. You can’t feel it lick your face. It doesn’t prick you like a tattooist’s needle. It doesn’t make you bleed.
Unless, that is, you are Viola di Grado, an Italian Goth who can make a trip to the mall sound like something from Dante’s Inferno. She has a sick and morbid imagination. She writes with the otherworldly sensitivity of someone who should really be in a psychiatric ward. She is creative in ways you couldn’t possibly predict. And she has written a defiantly unromantic love story that had me in tears from page 18.
You could say that this book is about language. The narrator, Camelia, lives in Leeds, which in winter ‘unleashes a lethal wind full of the short sharp vowels of northern Englishmen.’ After quitting university she works as a translator for a manufacturer of washing machines. Her translations run around in her brain imbuing her actions with bizarre metaphorical banality even when she is doing something much more significant than either working or doing her laundry, such as quarrelling with her mother, remembering her father, or losing her virginity to the idiot brother of the man she loves. Her quarrels with her mother take place in a world without language. Their conversations are silent. They speak with looks. And all the while Camelia is learning Chinese with the unfathomable Wen, who spurns her love and eludes her attempt to have a real relationship based on clear and unambiguous communication. ‘Talk, you bastard!’ she tells him but when he does she forgets how to breathe.
To say that the author uses language expertly would be an understatement. In an inspired translation by Michael Reynolds, the novel blends English, Italian and Chinese to impart something that exists beyond words with a surreal, symbolic language all its own.
An unromantic swim in Scarborough becomes, in Camelia’s world, a traumatic metaphor for a life that has been devastated by her move to England, by her mother’s suffering, by her father’s death. She can be assaulted by colours, mauled by the sky, humiliated and beaten up by the rain. In her world bones can awaken, rocks can be brought brutally to life and mute houses can reverberate to ‘a veritable rapture of sounds riddled with meanings.’
The ending isn’t happy. The author despises happy endings. But it isn’t unhappy in the way I expected. It was chilling. Shocking. Life and death hung in the balance. But whose? The twists and turns were stomach churning. You may end up vomiting this book. Or you may, like me, end up loving it. It made me feel gratefully, blissfully alive.