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Belletrista: "A small sense of folklore"

Date: Apr 5 2011

Tad Deffler reviews From the Land of the Moon for Belletrista

 


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Every once in a while you come across a small gem of a novel, a novella really, that just captivates you: Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier comes to mind or Chingiz Aïtmatov's Jamilia. They draw you in, mesmerize you a little and, before you realize it, you're on the last page. Milena Agus' From the Land of the Moon is just such a book. This short novel won the 2008 Zerilli-Marimò Prize, and was translated into English in 2010.

 

The narrator of the story, a young Sardinian woman, reflects upon the people who raised her. She tells us of her father, her mother, her mother's mother but, most of all, she talks about her paternal grandmother, someone described by a lover as "a creature made at a moment when God simply had no wish for the usual mass-produced women and, being in a poetic vein, had created her." There is a sense of intimacy in the story. We never learn the narrator's name and she, in turn, names very few individuals. Everything is "Mamma told me…" or "Papa never had…" It's as if she's talking directly to you, a friend or acquaintance, expecting you to know who the people in her family are, and drawing you into the stories and their lives.

 

The grandmother's life emerges in pieces, some of it from stories told by the narrator's parents and some from diaries she found, with frequent stops to go back and fill in a section of history here or there. We see her as a young woman tearing though life in a destructive storm, trying to create passion where little exists. Her striking looks bring many first date suitors but few second dates because she sends the men ardent poems that shock them. Harming herself causes her family to contemplate confining her for protection. Even when marriage finally does come, it is arranged and forced upon her by her parents as an alternative to an asylum.

 

After her marriage, she takes a short trip to a health spa. There she has a wonderful affair, and the tempestuous, troubled woman is changed. As the narrator says, "I knew a different grandmother, who could laugh at a trifle, and my father said the same...maybe those other things were only stories." But she, the narrator, doesn't really believe that. Rather, she is certain that the passion engendered by that short affair transformed her grandmother's life, making her happy and whole. Much later, when the book ends, we understand how that instance of redemption has become mythic to the narrator, and why she is telling the story.

 

If this had been the sum total of the book, it would have been a pleasant love story that could have turned sentimental, or even maudlin, at any moment, but didn't. I would have enjoyed Agus' comfortable and inviting style of writing, but I'm not sure that my experience of reading the novel would have gone much

beyond casual enjoyment.

 

However, the story didn't simply end there. As the narrator continued, her tale took little twists and turns. The story I thought had been so clearly set forth would be rewritten slightly along the way. Rather than being unpleasant, this "imperfect" narration gave the story a small sense of folklore, that ambiguous feeling that what we thought we knew may not, in fact, be exactly true. It was an extra dimension that made this book work so well for me. For a short while, I was pulled inside someone else's life, not quite aware of what was going on around me and, when I came to, found myself thinking, "I wonder if…."


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