I’m always a little uncomfortable when I get a review copy from a small publisher. I can’t guarantee that I’ll review it unless I think it’s worth recommending and those books cost money, time and effort to post out. It’s easy shrugging off the likes of Penguin Random House but small presses prick my conscience, and this one’s clearly tiny. Luckily for me Donatella Di Pietrantonio let me off that hook with her beautiful, heartrending story of a daughter caring for the mother with whom she’s had a conflicted relationship all her life.
Esperia Viola was born in 1942 the eldest of six daughters each conceived when their father was home on leave, each named by him in letters containing only a single word. Now Esperina, as she is known, has dementia and her daughter – our narrator – visits her regularly hoping to fill the widening chasms in her mother’s memory by telling her the story of her life. Esperina was born in a remote area of the Apennines, marrying her cousin after special dispensation from the Pope. It’s a place caught up in superstition where babies were still swaddled well into the twentieth century and witches kept away from the cradle. Her life has been hard – working the land all hours, cooking, keeping the house in order, responding to the many demands of her extended family – leaving her little time for a loving relationship with her daughter who resents it bitterly. As Esperina’s story unfolds that relationship begins to change.
Our narrator intersperses vivid vignettes from her mother’s life with her own memories, reflections, dreams and nightmares. Vibrant scenes – the annual slaughter of the family pig; Esperina’s wedding feast; her sister’s disfiguration – are made all the more immediate by Di Pietrantonio’s use of the second person, addressing her mother as ‘you’ in her narrative. The pain of the relationship between mother and daughter is poignantly conveyed: ‘I was still planning to settle my score with her when she escaped from me into her illness’ declares the daughter, then later ‘I have to go and see her every two or three days. I can’t bear longer separations. I’m scared I might lose her.’ As a young mother Esperina barely touched her child yet now finds excuses to reach out to her daughter, tenderly stroking her sleeve ostensibly to comment on the quality of its material. Di Pietrantonio’s language is some times formal, often poetic: there are some gorgeous descriptions of food and its preparation. It’s a moving, beautifully expressed novel, and good to see the translator’s name on the jacket. So often that’s not the case but without Franca Scurti Simpson there would be no My Mother is a River for us monolinguals to read which would be a shame.