Bella Mia starts in the aftermath of a quake that leaves an Italian town mourning its dead, but there is beauty and lyricism in Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s novel.
Book review: guilt and trauma from a seismic shock in Bella Mia
On April 6, 2009, an earthquake of a magnitude of 6.3 on the Richter scale hit the Italian city of L’Aquila. It killed more than 300 people, injured 1,500 and wreaked enough destruction to force 65,000 to abandon their homes, “politics and corruption” having led to the “poor enforcement” of essential laws of what could have been life- and home-saving anti-earthquake construction in many buildings.
This real-life tragedy provides the jumping-off point for Bella Mia, the second novel by Italian paediatric dentist Donatella Di Pietrantonio. In the preface she uses these details to set the scene, also describing in detail the temporary accommodation, the “sustainable and eco-compatible earthquake-proof housing complexes” known as “C.A.S.E.”, made available to thousands left without homes: an “artificial suburbia”.
Armed with these facts and figures, Di Pietrantonio starts by throwing her readers in at the deep end, into the midst of a family struggling with the loss of one of their own and exile from the lives they once knew. The reader’s initial disorientation is not a lack of information. We know what has happened. What we don’t know yet, however, are the nuances of the situation: what and whom each character has lost, or how each has dealt with the trauma.
It’s a simple but clever device on Di Pietrantonio’s part, the result of which is that the reader’s bewilderment and uncertainty mimics that of the characters; it’s entirely emotional in nature, you’re there with them, all desperately treading water together.
The story’s narrator is a 30-something-year-old ceramics artist. Unattached, when the novel opens she’s living with her mother and her 16-year-old nephew, Marco – “bequeathed” to the two women by his mother Olivia, the narrator’s twin sister, who perished in the earthquake. It’s been four years since the tragedy but the emotional scars these three survivors carry are like scabs picked open again and again, continually exposed and weeping. Not least because they’re still living at the C.A.S.E., their lives on hold, “tense, worn down by the persistence of uncertainty. Tired of waiting for Reconstruction”.
Olivia’s mother copes with her loss by paying daily visits to her daughter’s grave and lays the blame for Olivia’s death in the hands of her ex-husband/Marco’s father, Roberto. Her logic being that if he hadn’t left his wife for another woman, Olivia and Marco would still be living in Rome with him.
Marco, meanwhile, behaves as any grieving teenager would; he acts up and flouts authority, a thorn in his already-struggling aunt’s side. Obviously, though, the sharpest and most intimate portrait of mourning is to be found in that of the narrator herself. The loss of her sister has defined her life.
“On that morning of 6th April, four years ago, grief expanded and filled my atmosphere, the only air I breath[e]. I haven’t been able to feel anything else, I haven’t wavered.” And it’s an anguish made even weightier by the heavy burden of survivor’s guilt she’s shouldering, one that combines both feelings of inferiority, that she should have died instead of her sister – “it’s not the best one who is missing” – with the loss of identity she has in being left as a lone twin.
As with the best aftermath narratives, this isn’t a novel defined by plot. Instead, Bella Mia is a portrait of experience and Franca Scurti Simpson’s elegant translation of Di Pietrantonio’s prose throbs with rawness.
The author also strikes that delicate balance between the solipsism of the first person narration – which could, unchecked, have proved impenetrable – and a broader depiction of the communal aspect of the trauma, both in terms of the narrator’s family, in particular her fraught relationship with her nephew – “He irritates me but I continue by his side, trapped by a long, loose chain of shared affection, simultaneous and different” – and within the larger community that holds them – a neighbour who also lost her daughter accompanies the narrator’s mother to the graveyard each day.
It’s tempting to describe Di Pietrantonio’s work as Ferrante-esque, and although there’s definitely something in it, ultimately it’s an incomplete comparison.
There are notable similarities between the two authors’ artifice-free truthful rendering of their female protagonists’ inner lives, but so too is there a distinct lyricism here that’s absent in Elena Ferrante’s work, which marks Di Pietrantonio as writing in a style very much her own.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.