This vivid novel begins with the narrator’s recollection of being returned to her birth mother, after learning that the woman who raised her is in fact a distant aunt. Nicknamed “arminuta”, “the one who was returned”, the narrator feels not so much returned as doubly abandoned: “an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen.”
She is thrust from a life of privilege into an impoverished family, where food is fought over by a tumble of siblings she didn’t know she had. She must sleep with her bed-wetting younger sister: “Every night she lent me the sole of her foot to hold against my cheek. I had nothing else.” The bond that forms between them becomes a source of comfort and defiance as the narrator struggles to adjust and understand how two mothers can “exchange a daughter like a toy”.
This lacerating hurt – conveyed with powerful immediacy in this translation by Ann Goldstein, who also brought Elena Ferrante’s work into English – stings throughout the novel, but also becomes the impetus for resilience and self-determination.