by Viola Di Grado, translated by Antony Shugaar
Europa Editions, 174 pages
reviewed by Jeanne Bonner
Viola Di Grado, an exciting new Italian literary voice, begins her novel Hollow Heart with this sentence: In 2011, the world ended: I killed myself.
In fact, the book is narrated by a dead woman, Dorotea, who describes exactly how she killed herself and why (she drowned herself in the bathtub after a romantic breakup). Then Dorotea, a grad student living in Catania, Sicily, draws the reader into life after life with a dark, daring approach that attests to Di Grado’s penchant for innovation and invention.
Dorotea’s messages to other dead people, which read as though she were posting something on an alternate Facebook for the other side, are telling manifestations of these powers of invention. “Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011),” reads one of the messages, in part “We went to elementary school together. I was the one with freckles…I know we haven’t seen each other in 18 years but I heard that you were killed last year in a moped accident. Well, I happen to be in your neighborhood—I’m dead, too—and I was just thinking that if you had any free time, maybe we could get a drink together.”
These often humorous and at times achingly heartfelt messages are perhaps the highlight of the post-suicide sections of the book. Hollow Heart spans from 1986 (the year Dorotea was born) to 2015, and is divided into childhood, early adulthood (including the doomed romance), and the afterlife. Di Grado renders Dorotea’s journey through life after life in a fairly straightforward way, whimsical invention notwithstanding. The dead Dorotea wanders around Catania as if she were still living, checking on her mother and her aunt, revisiting the bookstore where she used to work, haunting her old boyfriend. You know, the usual.
This is, of course, unusual since more novels than not employ living characters as protagonists, not dead ones, but that’s part of the genius of the book. In other ways, the narrative is unusual in an almost deceptive way. Di Grado is proposing a reverse maturation for Dorotea. As her body degrades, her ability to make sense of her sorrow-filled life on earth increases. She lets go of her physical being just as she lets go of the grudges, the misunderstandings, the questions that plagued her relationship with her mother, among others.
Di Grado anchors the narrative with the physical degradation of Dorotea’s body, using it as a temporal skeleton upon which she hangs the story. Structured as short dated diary entries interspersed within the narrative, the Gothic-style updates tell us her body is breaking down and how. Aug. 28, 2013: “My ligaments have broken.” These entries continue up until and including, the degradation of her heart, which ultimately becomes hollow. Some of the details are a bit gruesome: flies lay eggs in what’s left of Dototea’s body and she tells us when her stomach splits open, an instance, among many, of Di Grado’s effective use of shocking imagery.
The extensive description of the body’s degradation meant Antony Shugaar, the esteemed literary translator, had his work cut out for him. His skills put the book on the PEN 2016 Prose in Translation prize shortlist.
Di Grado is one of a growing number of female authors from Southern Italy beyond Elena Ferrante, the reclusive author of The Days of Abandonment and the popular Neapolitan series of novels about a friendship between two women, who are at the vanguard of Italian literature. Among them are Nadia Terranova, whose novel Gli Anni al Contrario (literally “the years in reverse,” about Italy’s domestic terrorism era of the 1970s and early 1980s, not translated into English) won the prestigious Bagutta Prize for debut novels, and Donatella Di Pietrantonio who has written two novels, including most recently Bella Mia (also not yet translated), about the aftermath of the L’Aquila earthquake, a topic begging for exploration. Like Di Grado, these authors bring us modern female protagonists, navigating a world in which women are theoretically equal but still often struggling to assert themselves.
Born in Catania, Di Grado is also the author of the novel 70 % Acrylic, 30 % Wool, which won the 2011 Campiello First Novel Award and was a finalist for a Strega prize, Italy’s most prestigious literary award. Di Grado’s book was published by Europa Editions, Ferrante’s English-language publisher. And like Ferrante, Di Grado’s prose is often jarring. Two years into her death, Dorotea meets a little girl who’s holding what appears to be “a rubber doll” but is in fact a fetus. “It had tiny fingers joined together and a vestigial tail. It had neither eyelids nor defined genitalia.”
Di Grado’s Catania doesn’t come in for the detailed treatment of Ferrante’s Naples (or Turin or Florence, for that matter), but she does memorably refer to Catania in summer as a “scalding, oozing, an open wound.” It’s an apt metaphor for the novel’s protagonist. With the character of Dorotea, Di Grado has created someone with enormous emotional complexity who must take what fate has thrown at her without much help from the adults in her life. She doesn’t know her father. A beloved aunt died of a suicide—another victim of a drowning that was never fully explained. And her single parent mother, who works erratically as a photographer, is depressed; she’s also sexually active, as Dorotea describes in some detail: “When I got home, I went to my mother’s room, but the door was locked. I put my ear to the door: she was fucking someone. I went to sleep.”
Dorotea’s mother takes artistic photos of her—in fact, as she says in an interview about her work, Dorotea is her only subject. But Di Grado tells us her aim is to make Dorotea disappear entirely from the frame. Surely, the reason is artistic in nature but her photographic approach speaks loudly about the grim mother-daughter rapport at the heart of the book. “She never told me a nice bedtime story because we already had too many stories inside us,” says Dorotea, “and because bedtime was never going to be nice.”
Of Dorotea’s father, there are just traces. She was conceived on a one-night-stand with a classmate. “I don’t know what he wears around the house or what he reads at night before falling asleep,” she says. “I don’t know whether he reads or if he sleeps, I don’t know whether he talks a little or a lot, I don’t even know if he talks at all, I don’t know if he’s mute, I don’t know if he’s alive.”
And later: “I saw a car go by, I saw a man from behind. A powerful, terrifying sensation swept over me.”
The car vanished. But, she adds, “the sensation didn’t. That man was my father. I hadn’t seen his face. And even if I had, I’d have had no way to recognize him: I didn’t know what my father looked like. But that man was my father. A thought so powerful that it had no need for any logical tripod.”
In the section of the novel covering her childhood, Dorotea says she learned early on about “the secret mechanism of grief.” She goes onto explain, “I’d understood that grief is a Russian nesting doll: it never ends, it just hides inside new grief, and every new instance of grief contains all of the previous ones.” Passages like this one are stunningly beautiful, and astute. Is it not the case that every death of a loved one contains an echo of previous deaths?
From this insight, the reader comes to understand Dorotea’s revelation that suicide isn’t an escape. Indeed, she discovers just how much suicide has robbed her. She is powerless to help her mother and her aunt, as they grieve her death. Death has taken her favorite activity: in Di Grado’s afterworld, the dead can do much of what they did during life on earth but they can’t read.
Oddly, as grisly and depressing as the novel can be—anchored in a suicide that clearly cannot be reversed—Hollow Heart ends with a reconciliation. Maybe more than one. To say more would constitute a spoiler. And I don’t want to spoil this lovely, ambitious little book.
Jeanne Bonner is a freelance writer and editor, and a candidate for an M.F.A. in Fiction from Bennington College. A nonfiction essay she wrote called “I Come Bearing Gifts, Amore Mio,” was awarded Honorable Mention by Writer’s Digest as part of its annual writing contest this year. Another essay, on the importance of work, will be published in an anthology next year by the HerStories Project. Her poetry and nonfiction travel essays have appeared in Mothers Always Write and Afar.com, respectively. She lives in Atlanta, where until last year she was an NPR station reporter.