The arrival of the new paperback edition of this book on Saturday reminded me that I had written this post back in August but had shelved it. You may recall I was in the midst of losing a very dear friend which made reading this book, and writing about death, quite a challenging and thought-provoking affair. I shelved it deciding to bring it into the light of day a few months later and see whether I needed to edit out any excess emotion. In the event I haven't changed a word.
If ever a dust jacket was going to escalate a book straight onto the 'Read Me Next' table then this was it. Accabadora by Michela Murgia, and I have scanned it at high res just so you can drink in the beauty too, if you click on the picture it should come up even larger and more beautiful...
Beautifully adorned in the most covetable of paper raiment and part of a package of books in translation very kindly sent along by MacLehose Press after I wrote here about The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price and Julia by Otto de Kat. In the pile and still to read I have The Foxes Come at Night by Cees Nooteboom, Monsieur Lindh and His Child by Philippe Claudel ( I loved both Grey Souls and Brodeck's Report) and Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson.
I am surprised more publishers haven't cottoned onto this cover idea. I know the rage is all for up to the minute garishly jazzy covers, or eye-catching photos that look good in supermarkets, but I can't be the only reader who might buy this on impulse for that cover...or perhaps I am, but I like. I love the format of these books too, small and beautifully bound and presented, lovely to hold and though I feel sure I am repeating myself it bears saying time and again, the frisson of expectation that each small book might be about to pack a much bigger punch than its appearance suggests. Sometimes two hundred pages is plenty.
And that pattern all makes me want to go and cast on some Nordic knitting except I would be wrong by many degrees of latitude because Accabadora is set on the island of Sardinia (west of Italy between Corsica and Sicily) and a place of which I know absolutely nothing. But I do now know that one of the islands assets are its weaving and tapestry, so I am hoping that the cover uses something nicely traditional because I love it so much here's an even closer close up.
Set in the 1950s, the book and the community as tightly woven as that piece of cloth on the cover. Bound by tradition and convention, the community where the seemingly minor events like a boundary dispute can have an impact that will last for a generation, and where a young child, Maria, is sold off by her mother to be a soul-child to the childless Bonaria Urrai.
'Fill'e anima: soul child
That is what they call children who are conceived twice, from the poverty of one woman and the sterility of another...'
Widowed, poor and generally weary of motherhood and her fourth child, Maria's mother parts with her willingly, Maria goes silently and Bonaria adores her. What will emerge gradually is that Bonaria is the local angel of mercy, the accabadora (and yes I have been saying abracadabra too) the woman who acts as a mid-wife to the dying...
'...as only a woman can bring life into the world, only a woman should take it away.'
I have my own personal version of that which doesn't thankfully involve taking life away, but as I sat with my mum, unconscious in the final days of her life, talking to her and massaging her hands and making sure she had a beautiful quilt on her bed as she set off on her journey, I had a powerful sense of being there with her in death in the same way that she had given birth to me.
It is Bonaria who will be summoned by the people of Soreni when suffering reaches its outer limits, and Michela Murgia slowly weaves in a different perspective because, by trade Bonaria is a seamstress making best suits for the men, and of course isn't this exactly what many of them will be buried in eventually. To be measured up by Bonaria Urrai is a hauntingly prescient experience, a sure and certain prophecy of mortality.
When Bonaria, against her better judgement makes a decision that will have repercussions for both her and Maria, and for the rest of their days, you know there is much soul-searching and anguish ahead for them both, and I won't elaborate, but suffice to say much here that could be debated about issues of euthanasia, and that is no spoiler because the jacket copy says as much. This would make a great book group read for that reason especially if any group out there felt up for some robust debate, and someone could surely be tricoteusing up that cover design in the corner while the debate raged.
I gave all those issues my best shot as I read and much thought after I had turned the final page, but I will also admit to being willingly side-tracked by all the ood (luscious sounding things like aranzada, and capigliette) and the textiles, and the metaphors surrounding them that seemed to thread their way into this book. The clothes...Bonaria's ever-present black weave shawl and the way that fabric conceals or reveals, protects and shields... the cassocks, the coverlets, the mourning clothes, and along with them the rituals attached to death and dying in a small community..
'...the mourning of any one family reawakened the still-sensitive memory of every single lamentation that had gone before. This was why the neighbourhood shutters were half-closed to shield the eyes of the houses from the sun, as everyone hurried to mourn their own dead vicariously through this latest death.'
All those aspects of community and collective mourning that had all but disappeared here in the UK in the 1950s since, amongst other factors the arrival of the NHS and the move from home to hospital as the place of death. Pat Jalland writes about this in her really excellent book (if you are interested in this sort of thing) Death in War and Peace A History of Loss and Grief in England, 1914-1970.
The book heads towards a moving and soul-searching climax and ultimately I guess the final thought I was left with, if I am to continue a knitterly theme, is just who does or should have responsibility for casting off that final row of life. There are no clear answers that I could find, or ever will I suspect, given that there but for the grace of etc, and thus this book left me deep in that silent and ponderous mood, unable to do much for a while, in the way that only a good thought-provoking book can.
So no disappointment here, the book certainly packed a much bigger punch than I had expected and small wonder that it has won six literary prizes in Italy, well-deserved, and let's not forget the translator Silvester Mazzarella. I am in no position to pronounce on whether the book retains the feel and the tone of the original, but nothing jarred and all sufficient to make me want to head off and make some amaretti right now.