Donatella Di Pietrantonio
Franca Scurti Simpson
4 November 2015
Number Of Pages:
MY MOTHER IS A RIVER
The sensitive and powerful story of the love between a mother and her daughter, a love “gone wrong from the start”. When Esperia exhibits the symptoms of a disease that robs her of her memory and the very sense of her existence, it is time for the daughter to take care of her and help her to rebuild her disintegrating identity. So the daily recounting of the past begins. Day after day we learn about the characters of the extended family, the inhabitants of the small village still without running water or electricity, in a “bright and harsh” Abruzzo, which emerges from the pages like a mythological distant land. They are bittersweet memories, full of life and truth, that rebuild the story of a relationship and of an Italy that appears so very distant and yet it is still present in our characters’ history. And, in the telling, the mother and daughter relationship slowly changes, fluctuating between love and hate, nostalgia and denial.
A surprising new novel, revealing a strong voice weaving a compelling magic spell.
In this Gallery you will find photographs depicting people, places and activities from the area and the times in which the story in My Mother Is a River unfurls. More photographs can be found in our Pinterest page. Additional information on the places and some of the people mentioned in the book can also be found here.
This is the book's opening chapter:
Some days the illness eats away at her emotions too. The body is listless, it leaks the emptiness that drains it. It loses the ability to feel. It doesn’t suffer, it doesn’t live, not then.
The check-ups are for my benefit. They reassure me; it wasn’t I who made her sick and the progression is slow. Some abilities are partially preserved. I go with her, I look after her, I am a good enough daughter.
The promenade is deserted at this time, and the waves rumble darkly as they break and retreat, grinding up sand and shells. I’ve parked some way back so that we can walk together a while. My mother walks on her own, but she has slowed down. I link my arm through hers; I can smell the Adriatic Sea on the sleeve of her jacket. On the opposite shore Fioravante, the prisoner, starved on one boiled potato per day.
She relaxes, we fall into step together. I ask her if she likes the smell of the sea. She says, sort of, but she was born on the mountains, she prefers the smell of grass and flowers. She has never stretched out on a beach. It would’ve been good for her bones, I observe. She laughs. It’s too late now, she’d never wear a swimming costume now.
On the other side of the road, the twinkling lights of the restaurants. I suggest a surprise to close our day: let’s stop somewhere and eat some fish. No, better not, we’re expected for dinner. Another time, I promise.
Your name is Esperia Viola, known as Esperina. Like a violet, you were born on 25th March 1942, in a house on the border between the districts of Colledara and Tossicia. It was the last house before the mountains, a little stone that had rolled down accidentally on the eastern side of the Abruzzi Apennines.
It belonged to your paternal grandparents, and the families of their two sons were raised there.
Fioravante, the elder, was short, with a large and flat chest, strong arms, a little bow-legged. Look at the photographs. A solid body, made for working the land, or perhaps the land had shaped him so because he had toiled on it since he was a child. What do you think?
He was intelligent and passionate. Look, here you can see his deep black eyes. He was a brawler when he was young. He liked to tell of that time he knifed his neighbour for stealing two fat heifers from the summer pasture. Fioravante then went into hiding for months, hoping the thief wouldn’t kick the bucket. He would come down from the woods in the dead of night, and help himself to the bread and cheese his mother had wrapped in a white dishcloth with a blue stripe and left for him on the table before going to bed. He’d breathe in the smell of home and open the bedroom door a crack to reassure himself there were two sleeping outlines in the darkness broken by the starlit window. Then he’d be off again with his mule for company, along the safe paths known only to himself.
He was a hothead, was Fioravante.
You are the daughter of his first leave as a soldier in the war. He came back three times in all. He had married Serafina in October and in February he was already leaving for the front. A fine heifer, he would say to flatter her. Tall, slim and solid, she would stand up straight and graceful in spite of the hard work on the land, with the animals and the housework. And with the girls, later. From the time she had been a little girl she had practised carrying on her head the basket with lunch for the family, digging or harvesting the fields far away. She’d challenge herself to keep it balanced without using her hands when walking on broken ground. You did the same, later on. Your sisters too. There were hardly any mishaps, God help you otherwise. Serafina used to tell the story of how she had once tripped and spilled the macaroni on the grass. She picked everything up and said nothing. Nobody noticed a thing.
Only age eventually forced her into a stoop, sudden and severe, as if all the burdens of her life had descended on her at once, from a great height. It pained her deeply; I think she died of shame. Not just of that, of course, there were a lot of things. But becoming crooked was the final blow to her dignity, always guarded and protected, and reflected in her posture.
You want to know why I’m laughing? Because your mother walked like a model, but if she had to pee outdoors she’d just hike up her skirt, pull her underwear to one side and just do it there and then, with her legs apart. Standing up, like a mare. I saw her, I did, really I did. I know she never did that later, but I remember her when she was younger. She understood, later.
Having tracked down the reservist Fioravante to his hiding place and sent him to war, Italy granted him and Serafina, both barely able to read and write, the gift of a postal service. She wrote to him that she was well, and pregnant with a Scialomè, the nickname his family was known by. The real surname didn’t count for much, it was only for documents.
Serafina never failed in predicting the sex of her daughters. She just knew. Even with that first boy, she knew, and had cried the whole time, knowing she would lose it. Her womb was a curse for boys. It would welcome them but wouldn’t nurture them for long, and would let them die inside her once they already looked like little boys. She miscarried another after the third girl, and another one after the sixth. Her pregnancies were like that, symmetrical.
How she managed not to perish herself, one of those times, is a mystery. She’d start to bleed, and feel the labour pains come on, then the contractions would expel a nameless and listless tiny body from a womb that was not meant for him. For a few days Serafina would lose appetite and speech, and drink nothing but water and mallow tea, to make up for the tears she’d shed. Then she’d get up and go back to work, that is, she’d get on with life.
To his wife’s letter the soldier Fioravante replied with one bearing only a name. She laughed and accepted. Esperia was the gypsy-haired coal woman who, years before, had come for the firing with her brothers and charmed your grandfather’s woods with the voice of a sylvan siren. She could bewitch anyone listening, including Fioravante. With that name, he bestowed all that beauty onto his daughter, and you’ve always sung and whistled the soundtrack to your own life.
You would perform in front of your sisters singing traditional songs, like Fly Away and All the Fountains are Dry. You can only remember a few verses of Fly Away. No, it’s not because you’ve lost your memory, you didn’t like the other song, you found it too sad. I can look up the lyrics, if you like. We might even sing a duet, but I’m not as good as you are.
The radio was the second thing to transform your life. I’ll tell you about the first another time. It came when you were sixteen or seventeen, because Fioravante was a shepherd on the foothills of the Apennine and he was poor, but also earnest about Progress. He talked about it all the time, always with a capital ‘P’.
He sold some animals and bought it, a battery-operated one at first and then a larger model with a record player. It was pale yellow and brown, with dials on the front and a turntable for the LPs on top, protected by a lid. The world burst into your home. Your own home by now, no longer with grandparents, uncle and aunt and cousins. Too many arguments. Your home, two kilometres away. The radio filled it with whistling and buzzing, and harsh voices, Slavic, Austrian. It was difficult to tune into Italian voices, you had to turn the dials this way and that, ever so slowly, and the next time, the station would be gone. Here were singers and lyrics, you’d learn a song by heart right away and sing it cheerfully. Can you remember any names? Yes, today you can. Luciano Tajoli, Nilla Pizzi, and then Claudio Villa, Domenico Modugno. You loved the Sanremo music festival, it would keep you singing all year round. You also bought records of tragic love stories, lovers star-crossed to their death. Heartbreaking performances over the tones of an accordion. I’ve heard you sing Peppino and Rosetta to the point of exhaustion. I know you’re fond of that song, you still try to sing it sometimes, under your breath, don’t deny it.
"The writing and translation are poetic" - Read all Goodreads reviews here
"Simply beautiful writing", "Approach to dementia so understanding and sympathetic", "A very lyrical exploration of dementia within a mother and daughter relationship" - Read all Amazon reviews here
"The language is lumimous, bordering on poetic and I often high-lighted passages simply because the language was so beautiful" - Zouxzoux Blog
"My Mother Is a River is a challenging read which truly showcases the innovation and risk-taking that characterises the contemporary small press scene. It is a searingly honest account of the complex range of feelings experienced when caring for a loved one with dementia" - Contemporary Small Press blog
"Di Pietrantonio has created an array of utterly convincing characters and a rural community largerly untouched by the industrial revolution. She has a photographer's eye for deatail. Franca Scurti Simpson's translation reads like a novel written by a major English writer." - In Kalyna Review
"A sensitive and powerful story of love through the years and family life" - NannyCool blog
"Ferrante fever has been great for translated fiction, but this book demonstrates the strength in depth of Italian women's writing" - LibraryThing
"Just finished My Mother Is a River. Easily earned place on my top 10 books of year list" - Twitter comment by Paola Ruocco on 13/12/15
"I started reading My Mother Is a River last night. Just beautifully written and translated" - Twitter comment by Nathalie Reis on 7/12/15
"This is a beautifully expressed little novel, delicately poignant and heartfelt" - From the blog Heavenali
"I found My Mother Is a River a very potent book. The language feels fresh and original and the details of scent, taste, touch and natural surroundings create a superb sense of time and place. The family dynamics are very affecting, at times they are heart breaking." - Lennox Morrison, journalist
"My Mother Is a River is both engrossing and demanding ...The novel deservedly won prizes in Italy where it was first published." - Book Oxygen
4 of 5 stars - "It is a different facet of Italy, one of mountains and sea, farming and little villages... It is a story of the places we come from, how people and surroundings shape us and how they can have a domino effect on the lives of others." From the blog - fromfirstpagetolast
"It's a moving, beautifully expressed novel. It was a delight to read." From the blog - A life in books
"A touching tale of mental collapse, a story that uses many linguistic styles to create a history but at the same time a sadness of having to live with a relative’s slow decay." From the blog - Messengers Booker
“One of the most powerful debuts of the last few years.. Exquisit!” – MATTEO NUCCI, IL VENERDÌ
Magnificent and heart-breaking.. You must read it. – CHIARA VALERIO, L’UNITÀ
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