In A Girl Returned, Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award-winning novel, a nameless young woman retrospectively narrates the defining event of her adolescence—the year when the only family she has ever known returns her to her birth family. From the title, the reader can already sense the protagonist’s conundrum. A passive object of the act of being returned, her passivity in her own uprooting threatens to define her identity. Ann Goldstein’s searing translation from the Italian inspires the reader both to accompany the narrator as she wades through the tender memories of that time and to reflect on her or his own family relationships through a new lens.
In her adopted family, the narrator was the only child of a wealthy couple. Her birth family is big and poor, and their affection for each other is buried under hard calluses. She looks at what she thinks should be the most intimately familiar setting—her own home and family—with the gaze of an outsider. This masterfully executed act of defamiliarization creates a space in which the novel can interrogate cultural assumptions about family, motherhood, femininity, innocence, childhood, wealth inequality, intelligence, privilege, and sexuality. This passage, in which the narrator’s younger sister tries to rescue her from a confrontation with their mother, demonstrates the tensions that exist within love and between the expected and unexpected:
“No, no, not her!” The cry came from Adriana, who had just returned with Giuseppe, I hadn’t heard the door. “I’ll clean it up now, you can’t hit her, too,” she insisted, stopping her mother’s arm, in an attempt to defend my uniqueness, the difference between me and the other children, including her. I’ve never been able to explain the gesture of a child of ten who was beaten every day but wanted to preserve the privilege that I had, the untouchable sister who had just returned. She got a shove that sent her to her knees on the oily glass.
Ann Goldstein’s sensitive, simple, image-rich translation immediately absorbs the reader in the universe of the text and provokes empathy for the young narrator. Tasteful foreshadowing creates a sense of cohesion. Each character is sublimely human, both lovable and reprehensible, which further complicates the confrontation between the sheltered girl and the complex world to which she is now exposed. The expert pacing of the text emphasizes poignant moments by stopping time to take stock of sensations:
I felt my mother’s hand cross my back and stop decisively on my shoulder blade. I’d sunk my head down between my shoulders, like a dog fearful and pleased by the first caress after long neglect. But I escaped quickly, with an abrupt movement, and pulled slightly away. I was ashamed of her, of her cracked fingers, the faded mourning, the ignorance that slipped out at every word.
Di Pietrantonio and Goldstein have delivered a controlled and exacting interrogation of human relationships that confounds both the mind and the heart in the most delicious way. The girl’s experience challenges her in the moment, but over time the narratorial voice assimilates the strands of information and emotion into something like a sense of self. Perhaps, she begins to discover, with compassion and solidarity we can all transcend that which has befallen us without our permission. She reflects: “My sister. Like an improbable flower, growing in a clump of earth stuck in the rock. From her I learned resistance. We look less like each other now, but we find the same meaning in this being thrown into the world. In our alliance we survived.”