This is Italian author Viola Di Grado’s first novel and for it she won Italy’s 2011 Campiello Prize for First Novel. And what a novel it is. Di Grado is most definitely an author to expect a lot of great things from and being that she’s still very young (only 25). If her next novels are even a fraction as great as this one was, she’ll have a long literary career ahead of her. She is a very unique voice in contemporary fiction, with turns of phrases, metaphors and descriptions that are truly bizarre and unique - and in a great way. She’s very imaginative and this first novel shows immense promise.
The story is about a young Italian girl named Camelia, living in Leeds, England, with her mother. She and her mother are suffering from severe emotional trauma. Camelia’s father had passed away three years earlier under very undignified circumstances. That loss affects them in different ways. Camelia’s mother, Livia, a once renowned flautist with performances all over the world suddenly stops speaking and lets herself go, literally deteriorating in front of young Camelia’s eyes. Camelia’s mental state is reflected by her lack of concept of time, where one day - and season, for that matter - blends into the next. She holds down a part time job translating instructional booklets for an Italian washing machine company and spends her time alone, wandering the streets of Leeds (which appears as a suffocating, oppressive character in and of itself), hanging around the local cemetery, renting a seemingly same DVD over and over again (which appears to always have a different film in the box - making whether she is actually getting the same one over and over again unreliable) and sitting in her room mutilating her clothing into grotesque fashion items. A former student of Chinese, she decides to start studying again and after a chance meeting of a strange boy named Wen (who works at a family owned clothing boutique in the neighborhood) she agrees to his proposition to help her study the language. This connection offers a ray of hope to Camelia’s otherwise dark existence but as she warns at the very beginning of the story, “This is not a love story...”
There are a lot of interesting metaphors taking place here. Camelia’s mental and emotional state being one of them. There is a constant referral to cutting things: her clothing, the heads off flowers, getting a tattoo, a sort of self-mutilation comes to mind. There is also the issue of language and how the key to Chinese characters work and what they represent to form the words, keys which often reflect or reveal her emotional state of the dark happenings taking place all around her. Her mother’s inability to speak, where she and her daughter communicate via facial expressions. (As to whether this is literal or not isn’t really clear. You sometimes get the impression that it’s Camelia merely blocking it out). The idea of language not being truly sufficient to express the deepest recesses of the self. All of this is expressed in metaphors and similes that are truly unique and imaginative.
The story progresses as we watch Camelia struggle with her inner turmoil, trying to make sense of her father’s death, her mother’s deterioration and her struggles to win the affection of Wen, who seems to like her but shows no outward physical interest in her. There are many references to her lack of self-image (the mutilated clothes, the size of her nose, the color of her hair, etc). Frustrated she turns to Wen’s retarded brother and once that door opens, it complicates things even more, taking whatever ray of light peering through the claustrophobic, oppressive existence and extinguishing it without mercy.
This is a very very dark novel but one that will keep you engaged throughout. The power of DiGrado’s prose (as well as very funny observations and coincidences peppered throughout the story) takes the edge off just a little bit. This is not a “feel good” novel by any stretch of the imagination but it is one you will thoroughly enjoy and engage with. I’m looking forward to future work from this amazing young author. I have a feeling that this is only the beginning. Keep an eye out for her. She’s going to be huge.