Italy is two countries. Tourists know the ancient city centers, with their long lines for the Duomo or gelato. Grab a bus to the end of the line, however, and things turn shoddy and cheap. Out on “la periferia,” lovely farmlands have been torn up for slapdash development. The place has its own dialect and shadowy, suspicious ways.
Similar schisms exist in every country, of course, but in Italy it’s especially intense. The impact is felt everywhere from the bank to the bedroom, and none of these tensions escape the still-young Italian novelist Donatella Di Pietrantonio. Her debut in English, “A Girl Returned,” caroms from one side of the divide to the other. The zig and zag is always eye-catching, and before long we care deeply about where every shot will land.
Our primary voyager between worlds is the narrator, not quite 14 as the novel opens. Since infancy she’s lived Uptown, “spreading waves of chocolate on bread,” and enjoying the lido every summer. But in the first chapter, an abrupt half-page, the man she thought of as her father drops her off at the crowded apartment of a “large poor family” - her actual birth family.
This much, at least, has been made clear to the young protagonist. She has been told that the “mother” who raised her was in fact the sister of her birth mother. Crucial questions linger, however, and the girl’s left reeling between abandonment and alienation. Not surprisingly, she remains unnamed throughout the text. The brief, bumptious chapters cover roughly a year, and the lead player doesn’t come of age so much as rip away childhood’s masks.
The foremost risk in such a setup is bathos: the poor kid! Her first night, the narrator has to share a stinking small mattress with the little sister she’s never known. Just across the room lie her older brothers, half-clad and surging with hormones. Then a day or so later the girl’s stranger of a mother asks her to pluck a freshly killed chicken. She can’t manage, she can barely boil water, and it’s a challenge just to speak with this woman in the kitchen: “From the moment I was given back to her, the word ‘mamma’ had stuck in my throat like a frog that wouldn’t jump out.”
Note the playful metaphor, however. Di Pietrantonio never allows her story to wallow in despair. She has more spunk than that and not just in her lively way with a phrase. (The translator, Ann Goldstein, shows the same sensitivity she does with Elena Ferrante.) She also has a fine instinct for detail, for instance in how she distinguishes one of the brothers: “a scar in the shape of a fish bone decorated his left temple.” Better yet, she knows how to mix things up, scene after scene.
When the narrator develops a crush on the brother with the scar, it’s unsettling in itself, incestuous, but more than that, their puppy love springs up in surprising places. The guy from the wrong side of the tracks visits the girl’s posh former beach club. Later, back out in the slums, the protagonist gets a chilling lesson in the dangers of her brother’s work for the local “Gypsies.” On both occasions, she’s not alone. Her younger sister Adriana doesn’t just share her bed; she’s always ready with some spiky insight, illuminating every discovery, even those that turn tragic.
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Tragedy shadows every move, even if overall the novel feels a tad rosy. Somehow, the narrator’s personal upheavals don’t keep her from excelling at school. The woman she won’t call “Mamma” reveals a heart of gold at critical junctures, and her feisty little sister sounds at times like one of Our Gang. Still, “A Girl Returned” doesn’t gloss over the nasty by-products of living out beyond the last bus stop. The father clings to the lowest rung at the local factory, his self-esteem as threadbare as his kids’ clothing, and so at home he handles their complaints with the back of his hand. By book’s end, in any case, the girl learns that the primary blame for this mess lies at the feet of the rich relations.
Clues are introduced with stinging details, such as the citrus trace of the former mother’s perfume, lingering after a surreptitious visit. In Italy this novel was Di Pietrantonio’s third, and she has worked up impressive narrative craft. She knows just when and where to slip the pieces of her jigsaw into place - all while leaving emotional gaps, psychic wounds that can never heal. Now and again the story provides a flash-forward, allowing us to see the players’ adult destinies, and a couple of these contribute to the sense of a happy ending. Others, however, resonate with the pangs of a society badly split, as the now-grown narrator confronts her devastated notion of intimacy: “On the pillow every night the same knot of phantoms awaits me, the obscure terrors.”