Donatella Di Pietrantonio
Franca Scurti Simpson
23 November 2016
216 x 135 mm
Number Of Pages:
Moving and unsentimental story of inner reconstruction after a devastating loss
Shortlisted for the prestigious Premio Strega in Italy in 2014, this is the story of a broken family coming to terms, in the aftermath of the earthquake in L’Aquila in 2009, with the loss of one of them - a twin sister, a daughter, a mother – while living in temporary accommodation on the outskirts of the city. The terse and clean voice of the spiky, single, thirty-something female narrator wards off sentimentality while guiding us through the inner reconstruction undertaken by each character individually and by the family as a whole, letting us witness the extraordinary poetic power of love and the renewal of hope.
He sits in his place, a shaggy head hanging over the bowl. The steam from the soup enlarges the pores of his spotty skin and curls the long, thin hairs sprouting aimlessly, not yet planning to become a beard. From the noise of his cutlery you’d think he’s working hard, but he eats very little. He pushes his food around for a long time, but the spoon going to his mouth is almost empty. He avoids our eyes, he knows that we are looking at him and counting the calories ingested and those left on the plate.
He chews on his own silence.
I can’t quite love this boy, not completely. Tall, skinny, a body made of broken lines, with no curves, an unexpected fragility in the outline of his legs just under the knee. His grandmother still treats him like a little boy; as for me, I don’t know how to approach him. He’s an adolescent, he seems younger sometimes.
I felt an easy tenderness for him when he was a little boy with dark curls and a heart-shaped little mouth; he had plenty of the grace needed by the young to ensure the preservation of the species, back then. I would bombard him with kisses on those weary afternoons he was left with me. He used to smell like a puppy, now he leaves a trail of stale armpit and unwashed hair sometimes, as he goes by without a sound. With his T-shirt off, he’s a landscape of protruding ribs on one side, and vertebrae on the other. He stoops, in the posture of someone who has just stopped, with his belly, a ball kicked hard at him. I don’t always recognise him at a distance, from the back. He has grown so quickly.
We find ourselves around this reconstructed table that belongs to none of us. We all used to have our own: the widowed grandmother in her village house, me in the centre of town, and him, with his mother, not far away. The two of them had been back a year and a half, when it happened. Now we’re together, the three of us alone in the flat we have
been assigned. He is ours, my nephew, my mother’s grandson.
We didn’t need the earthquake, we already had our own tribulations. But my sister had been happy to come back with her son. An acceptable compromise, she used to say. She had found her way back to old places, suspended friendships, a slower pace of life. It had quickly softened the separation. On Sunday afternoons in winter we’d find each other having coffee at our mother’s place, sitting under the low-hanging light in the dining room. She spoiled us, a little chocolate materialising, as if by chance, next to the steaming cup. Later there would be a bowl of fruit peeled by invisible hands, and the excuse of having to pick up the laundry from the line in the yard to facilitate confidences
between the two of us.
When he was not out with friends he’d come along, headphones on. He’d leave us on the outside. He does the same some mornings now, if he misses the bus and I drive him in. He turns the music pouring into his ears into a barbedwire fence between me and him. At those times perhaps he feels more vulnerable, more careful of protecting his distance.
He holds himself inside his coat, pulls up the collar, uses the cloth as a barrier and makes himself unreachable. He looks stubbornly out of the window, or at the hem of his trousers and his shoes. He holds on so tight to avoid being thrown against me on a right turn, that his knuckles go white. When we turn the other way, he flattens himself against the glass, his face and shoulder facing out. Only his sharp corners are visible to me – his thigh, his elbow – should I be thrown off against him. When we get to school I barely hear his goodbye, but he closes the car door with unexpected consideration.
A few days ago we met outside the front door to the block, him carrying his backpack and me, heavy bags of shopping. He was ahead by a few steps, mumbled a hint of a greeting and left the door open for me before heading upstairs. But then, having dropped his burden on our landing, he came downstairs again to help, taking the potatoes and the mineral water pack hanging from my index finger, which was already turning blue. I thanked him, but there was no reply.
Bella Mia's dense narrative belies its size: fewer than 200 pages and a revelation on every one. Di Pietrantonio's gift for storytelling is sutained by the understated poetry of the language - The Skinny
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. - The National
The writing evokes the pain of loss and the pull of survival. The language and imagery should be savoured. - Neverimitate
It comes as no surprise that Donatella Di Pietrantonio has been hailed as one of the most notable debuts of the past decade on the Italian literary scene. Bella Mia won the Brancati Prize and was shortlisted for the Strega Prize, two of Italy's top literary prizes. English-language readers can now discover why. - Valeria Vescina, Riveting Reviews, Europeal Literary Network
The writing is very good as well: terse and clean, with some beautifully observed details - Good Reads
Bella Mia is poetry in prose - Good Reads
This book is important and I'd recommend it to anyone. It's a strong narrative of an Italian woman reconstructing herself from the bottom up - and it'll whisk you away into a complicated, honest world. - Bycycle Books
Donatella Di Pietrantonio has written a beautiful novel of reconstruction, family, memory and loss. Ultimately there is a feeling of hope, however, a feeling of things slowly moving forward - Heavenali
Some of my favourite novels of the year were set in recent history, such as Bella Mia by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, following the emotional aftermath of families displaced by the 2009 L'Aquila earthquae in Italy with tender and well paced prose - TYCI
Bella Mia is a beatifully imagined story, full of raw emotioin and blinding grief, and explores the dynamics of a family who grieve, but are not united in that grief. Each character is created perfectly, with special mention to Caterina who has many flaws, yet her vulnerabiity and humanity shines through on every page - Random Things Through My Letterbox
This is a beautifully detailed account of the minutiae of daily life in extraordinary circumstances providing an unsentimental and realistic insight into the nature of sudden bereavement - Contemporary Small Press
Negotiating the strange afterlife of natural destruction, where ofteen only Mother Nature can take the blame, the story of Caterina's recovery and self-discovery after the loss of her sister, despite all that the world throws at her, reveals itself as essential reading - Asymptote Journal
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