Readers who have gone through a painful breakup may be advised to pass on this novel: it is a powerful, emotionally charged account of abandonment which draws the reader right into the consciousness of the female narrator, her pain and derangement. Written by the author of My Brilliant Friend and the Neapolitan novels, there are some familiar elements: the powerful first person female narrator who tries to write while keeping home and raising children, the evocation of Naples in her childhood memories, the distinctive uses of dialect and formal Italian, the threat of violence lurking beneath the surface in human relationships. Yet this novel, taking place largely in apartments and the neighbourhood over a few months, has distilled those elements into a more concentrated text where physical distortion and decomposition accompanies the mental deterioration experienced by the narrator.
The novel starts with the announcement by Olga’s husband, Mario, that he is going to leave her. Olga is in complete shock, having thought their 15 year marriage was doing fine. Early on in their relationship he had called it off briefly, but then apologised a few days later, saying there had come upon him ‘ a sudden absence of sense’. As she realises the separation is permanent her life descends into disorder and chaos: she can’t sleep, watches daytime TV, household routines disintegrate, she has a car accident and doesn’t pay the bills so her phone gets cut off. She is often on the point of neglecting the children and the dog and erupts into obscenities at the slightest provocation.
This process of losing her grip on practicalities is accompanied by a mental deterioration. She is haunted by the memory of a pitiful character from her Neapolitan neighbourhood-‘la poverella‘ – who wandered the streets weeping and keening when her husband left her, and eventually drowned. Olga remembers sitting beneath her mother’s sewing table as a child and hearing her mother say la poverella was ‘as dry now as a salted anchovy’. The association of a woman abandoned with dessication is echoed in Olga’s feeling that ‘the life had been drained out of me like blood and saliva and mucus from a patient during an operation’. And this is all part of a repertoire of imagery rooted in the physical, the visceral, used to describe not just her feelings of sexual rejection, but of revulsion, disgust and violence.
The nadir of her descent occurs one night when she has accidentally locked herself in the flat, her son Gianni has a fever and Otto the dog is very ill, probably poisoned. The phone has been cut off so she can’t get help. Olga begins to hallucinate that her daugher Ilaria, dressed up in her clothes, is an ancient dwarf from the Vomero funicular, she sees her own personality splitting up in her three way mirror and sees la poverella inhabiting her body, sitting on her chair with her veins exposed, ‘red, uncovered, wet, pulsing’. This is a powerful and frightening account indeed of a descent into madness.
Now if at this stage you are thinking you can’t quite face this, stay with it. For something happens that night to trigger a change in Olga, to pull her back to the land of sanity and normality. After putting back the pieces of that night, we see her pick herself up, find a job and reconnect with friends. The children start going regularly to visit their father and the normal ups and downs of separated families are described. Olga is able to meet Mario by chance and remain calm and civilised, in contrast to the eruption of violence that occurred on the street before. She has regained her life and found her independent self. And she realises she no longer loves Mario for this reason : his ‘absence of sense’ was a mere justification to indulge a sexual whim : she experienced a different order of ‘absence of sense’ when she plunged to the edge of insanity and managed to get back to the surface.
I enjoyed this novel for its compelling account of grief and a mind brushing the edges of insanity. I love the ‘Italianness’ of the novel- the narrator’s concern with her looks and style, with food and homemaking, while fiercely aware of her own intellect and talents. I love the way the children, their lives and demands, are integrated into the consciousness of the female narrator and yet her appraisal of motherhood is far from sentimental. It was details from the intimate, domestic life described which made me both laugh and cry rather than the loss of romantic love. And thanks to Ann Goldstein for translating the powerful imagery into an evocative English which stays in the mind.