Accabadora by Michela Murgia (translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella)

Accabadora is about adoption.  It’s also a coming of age story and a mother-daughter drama.  It’s about choices, consequences and secrets… about being allowed to die with dignity… about the collision between the old and the new.   Accabadora is about a lot of things, most of which don’t have much in common with each other.  And while, overall, Michela Murgia has put out a well-written novel (winning multiple awards) for me the plot became increasingly uneven the more I read.  It’s a bit of a hodgepodge, leaving me with mixed feelings.  On one hand – life is uneven, messy and essentially just a string of random events.  On the other – novels are edited objects, we expect an author to perform a certain amount of curating in order in creating a narrative.

Bonaria Urrai is a seamstress in a small village on the island of Sardinia.  She was once betrothed, but her fiance died in World War II.  She never married.  When the book opens she adopts Maria, the youngest daughter of a crass, indifferent woman.  Maria becomes a “soul-child”.  In the local form of open-adoption, her mother gives Maria to Bonaria Urrai to raise as her own child.  What she, Maria’s biological mother, gets in return is unclear – money, status, a daughter of means to support her in her own age or simply one less mouth to feed.  Regardless, there is no shame attached to anyone involved in the transaction.  In every way that matters Maria becomes Bonaria’s daughter.  And yet she retains her connection to her birth mother and sisters.

Bonaria Urrai also has a second life, one which she keeps a secret from Maria.   Accabadora derives from a Spanish word that means “to finish or complete” (from the book’s glossary).  Bonaria is an angel of death, helping her neighbors to die after receiving their and their family’s consent.  Like Maria’s adoption it is common knowledge.  Everyone in the village knows the role this woman plays, and revere her for it… except, inexplicably in my opinion, Maria.  How she finds out and reacts is the climactic moment of the story.

Maria leaves Sardinia and travels to Genoa to become the nanny to a rich family.  This amounts to not much more than a strange interlude with little connection to the overall narrative.  It ends when she loses her job and is (a bit too conveniently) summoned home to care for the dying Bonaria.

Most of the events I’ve described above are found on the back cover.  So I haven’t given much away.  Michela Murgia has written a plot- and character- driven novel, very different from what I’ve been reading lately.  She has no post-modern, experimental agenda.  Her “literary realism” approach make her characters’ motivations and choices important.  To sell the plot they must be defined and believable.  They were neither, and as a result I had a hard time buying in.

The prose is an entirely different matter.  Each paragraph is carefully composed.  For example, when Maria first begins to understand her adoptive mother’s secret Murgia allows the girl’s thought processes to unfold slowly while she prepares supper.

As she cut the onion into thin slices, Maria mulled obsessively over this difference, arranging the ingredients for supper with the same hypnotic slowness with which she was trying to order her thoughts.  Andría’s words had been as crazy as the light in his eyes as he was saying them, and they had made no sense to Maria, though when set against certain memories they began to take on some sort of meaning.  As she cut the tomato into pieces, she could see again the figure of the old dressmaker huddled by the fire that same morning, fully dressed and with her hair done as if she had just come home, or already knew that she would soon need to go out.  Maria had long ago stopped pondering the mysterious nocturnal expeditions of  her elderly adoptive mother, but now these suppressed memories came back to hit her like the elastic of a catapult, prompting the thought that Bonaria Urrai might have something serious to hide.  It was the first time such a thought had ever struck Maria, and she did not know how to cope with this suspicion which fitted so badly with the confidence she felt in the woman who had taken her to be her daughter.  Bonaria could not possibly have lied to her, because there are things you should do and things you should not do, she reminded herself as she dropped the rest of the finally chopped vegetables into the sizzling oil.  The wooden spoon evoked fragrances and memories among the browning onions and, as she slowly stirred them, Maria opened herself to both, and remembered an afternoon from many years before, only a few months after she had first become soul-daughter to Tzia Bonaria.

Accabadora is filled with wonderful and delicate moments like this; writing that creates a setting and context that make sense; scenes you can step into.  But these moments are hostage to a needlessly convoluted and (if I’m being completely honest) overly theatrical plot.   I type my criticisms with trepidation.  Accabadora won seven awards, including Italy’s Premio Campiello.   No small achievement for Michela Murgia’s freshman novel, one that makes it impossible to dismiss her as an author.  The fact remains there is a lot of promise in these first pages.  She bears watching.

Publisher:  Counterpoint Press, Berkeley (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 61902 050 4

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2 thoughts on “Accabadora by Michela Murgia (translated from the Italian by Silvester Mazzarella)

    • I couldn’t imagine you picking this book up – it’s not your thing at all. Accabadora just isn’t edgy enough, plus it’s historical fiction (the ‘Lori’ kiss of death!).

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