It is 1975, somewhere in the south of Italy. A thirteen year old girl drags a suitcase and a bag of shoes up the stairs of a tenement building in an unknown town. She is about to meet – and live with – people she has never met before. The girl telling her painful story is not named, except that we know her by her nickname Arminuta (the “girl returned”). Before this, she was living in a nearby city (not named) by the sea with her mother and father. It has been the happy, comfortable life of an only child with caring parents, good food, friends, ballet classes, swimming and so on.Then for reasons that neither she nor we can fathom, she has been abruptly taken by her “father” to the town 50 miles away. It emerges that this is her birth family and she is to be left with them, permanently. Why is she not given any explanation? Is the woman she knew as her mother seriously ill? Will she be able to return when her mother is better? Letters take days to arrive, the nearest telephone is at the local wine shop – and she is unable to make contact. Instead she has to find her way with a group of strangers: a distant mother worn down by too many children and too little money; a taciturn and occasionally harsh father; occasional bullying from her brothers. The household is dominated by poverty – the food is poor and monotonous, housework relentless, and the male siblings are alien and unkind.
Oddly, her other “parents” do know what conditions she is living in, and seem to be concerned. Food parcels appear, money and even bunk beds for her and her new sister who have until then shared one urine-stained mattress. It is all the more perplexing – and it is not until much later in the novel that an explanation emerges. There is no deliberate brutality but a cold neglect that affects all the family. Gradually, Arminuta befriends and supports her younger sister and develops a good relationship with one brother. Teachers at school recognise her intelligence and help her to find ways of coping with her situation. And rather than being horrified by her story, the reader is impressed by Arminuta’s stoical attitude. We also come to see that her new family has a very hard life and feel some sympathy for them. Early on, she is told to help with bottling tomatoes:
We were in the building’s basement garage. In a shapeless heap against the walls were broken baskets, cartons corrugated by the dampness, a mattress full of holes with tufts of wool sticking out. A headless doll in a corner. In a small central area we kids were peeling tomatoes for sauce and cutting them up into pieces. I was the slowest. ….
Two of the brothers quarrel and knock over a container of peeled tomatoes
… on to the concrete floor, in the dust. Without thinking I was about to throw them in with the garbage, but Adriana took them away from me just in time, with a quick, adult move. She washed them and squeezed them before putting them back in the pot. She turned to stare at me in silence, had I understood? One mustn’t waste anything. I nodded.
The style of writing is plain but vivid, and we always share Arminuta’s distinctive point of view. Her adjustment to this new world is registered in a very sensory, material way: a cold water bath; the smells of bodies crowded together, especially at night; dampness and heat; casual slaps; childish cruelty; the labour of preparing cheap food. What was most powerful for me was the absence of love in this large family competing for food, attention, and space. There is no real brutality but they seem like strangers to each other, as well as to the new-comer.
While this could have been a kind of misery memoir, Di Pietrantonio has instead written a novel about growing up, moving from childhood into a complicated adult world. It is a novel about identity, and – perhaps oddly – about love. Arminuta develops self-reliance, discovers her strengths and gives love and support to her struggling younger sister. Neither is it a simplistic tale of triumph over adversity. Her birth father seems distant and harsh but she is capable of wondering that he “had never concerned himself with me or the other children, really. Or maybe I just hadn’t seen it.” As one of the women who help her says, “No one has your strength…. After what happened, you’re still on your feet, clean and orderly …. We admire you.” Nevertheless, she replies, “You can’t imagine how much effort it costs me to stay clean and orderly, as you say, and to study.
A Girl Returned is translated by Ann Goldstein, Elena Ferrante’s translator, and there are some similarities to the Neapolitan quartet. This is a story of young girls growing up, family difficulties, and hardship, with a strong sense of place and urban life. It is neatly plotted and the mystery behind her forced removal is kept just below the surface as the novel concentrates on the central character’s experiences. This is the third novel by Di Pietrantonio… I hope there will be more.