BOOK REVIEW: This prize-winning novel is written in lavish language and with beautiful metaphors. But oh, it is unrelentingly bleak.
Winner of last year's Campiello First Novel Prize and a finalist for the Strega Prize, Italy's most prestigious book award, Viola Di Grado's first novel, "70% Acrylic, 30% Wool" (Europa Editions, 192 pages, $16) is unremittingly bleak. Translated from Italian by Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions, the work is dark from beginning to end, belying the book jacket's description. I love somber novels, but for me, this one was over the top.
The POV character, twenty-something Camelia Mega, is self-destructive, wallowing in self-pity. True, she's experienced tragedy: Three years before the novel opens, her father smashed his car in a ditch, dying beside the woman with whom he was having an affair. Camelia's formerly beautiful mother, Livia, a flutist, has given up on life and no longer speaks. Camelia has quit college, where she'd intended to study Chinese, and moved in with her mother to take care of her.
They are living in Leeds, England, far from their native Turin, from where the family moved when Camelia was a child. Here it's perpetual winter, gray and depressing, especially "if you're Italian and you have the sun in your genes." They inhabit a cheerless apartment on Christopher Road, still full of the faithless Stefano's notebooks, records and clothes. Since the accident, mother and daughter have been squatting in squalid torpor, punctuated only by their silent "language of looks."
Rationalizing their wordless communication, Camelia says, "It's words themselves that are antithetical to life. They're born in your head, you nurse them in your throat, and then you spray your voice all over them and kill them forever. The tongue is a witless crematorium that would like to share but instead destroys, like Edward Scissorhands' blade-fingers that cut when they caress."
And cutting of all kinds -- self-mutilation, snipping off the heads of flowers, slashing her clothes to shreds, getting tattooed -- is what Camelia does throughout the novel. Bereft, hopeless, she is provoked by beauty, impelled to destroy it. Through happenstance (although related to her habit of dumpster diving) Camelia meets Wen, the gentle proprietor of a nearby tailor and clothing shop. When she begins taking weekly Chinese lessons from him, there's an illusory pinprick of hope. Just as it seems the sun might come out, the novel veers back into the murk of despair.
When she began her grim tale, Camelia told us, "This is not a love story, however much it would like to be." What keeps the reader turning the pages despite the gloom of the novel's events is the inventiveness of Di Grado's language. Her extravagant metaphors and similes mostly hit their mark. For my taste, however, there's just a bit too much imagery involving vomit, cutting, holes, blood, semen and death.
Kathryn Lang, former senior editor at SMU Press in Dallas, has appreciatively edited many a dark novel and story collection.