Hand’s up, who knows what an accabadora is? I’d be impressed if you did know. I didn’t, but I soon found out when I picked up my lasted read which uses this word as its title. The meaning of accabadora is revealed in the cover blurb (see below). It’s definition ain’t pretty, but it’s one that’s sure to pique a lot of interest in the book. It certainly piqued mine, and I only got as far as the title. I’ve been hooked, so join me then as I dive a little deeper, and present my forethoughts on what potentially looks to be a very interesting novel.
Even before I begin reading Accabadora by Michela Murgia (MacLehose Press; translated by Silvester Mazzarella), I know I hold something special in my hand. In its native Italy, the novel has won six – count them: 1,2,3,4,5,6 – literary awards (including the prestigious Campiello Prize), so to ignore a book with such glowing accolades would be idiotic (people do though, as lovers of translated fiction know fine well). Actually, given that it has such a striking cover (designed by Monica Reyes. She seems to have used a simple patterned fabric but to great effect), Accabadora is impossible to ignore even without knowing that it’s a multiple prize winner. This is one which will definitely stand out on the bookshop shelves, you can be sure of that.
Let’s move on then to look at the cover blurb, which may, as we all know, contain mild spoilers:
When the once-beautiful Bonaria Urrai adopts Maria, the unloved fourth child of a widow, she tries to shield the girl from the truth about her role as an accabadora, an angel of mercy, who acts as a midwife to the dying. The rural community fear and revere her in equal measure, but they understand that just as only a woman can bring life into the world, only a woman should take it away.
Moved by the pleas of a young man crippled in an accident, she breaks her golden rule of familial consent, and in the recriminations that follow, Maria rejects Tzia Bonaria and flees Sardinia for Turin. Adrift in the big city, she strives to find love and acceptance, but her efforts are overshadowed by the creeping knowledge of a debt unpaid, of family ties that have nothing to do with blood, and of a destiny that must one day be hers.
A powerful and yet delicate novel set in the 1950s rural Sardinia, written in a rich, limpid prose that perfectly captures the hidden ties between life, love and death.
First impressions based on the blurb? Powerful stuff, about a girl who is obviously troubled deep down. The big part that ‘family’ seems to play in Accabadora (as with many Italian novels) is intriguing. We all know how deep running family feuds can get, and I’ve a feeling that this one might well get right down to the core, especially when taking the mother’s ‘profession’ into consideration. If the family feud does reach the depths I expect it to, then Accabadora is, I think, going be one heck of a ‘rollercoaster’ novel.
Know what else I love the sound of? That this novel is set in a rural location in 1950s Sardinia. I know little of the history of the island during this period, so it’ll be nice to find out a little more. The fact that the novel is also partly set in the bustling city of Turin is of further interest. Aside from offering a striking contrast to rural Sardinia, it’ll hopefully teach me something about 1950s Turin too, because I know nothing about that either (and who says that fiction doesn’t educate, eh? ).
Of course most interesting of all is this theme of the accabadora. Apparently, these traditional ‘angels of death’ actually existed on the island of Sardinia up to as late as the 1970s, and they were brutal in their profession (Judith Schalansky missed a trick here, didn’t she?). The aged accabadora would enter the home of somebody dying – swathed in black; face covered – and clinically dispatch the poor person, not only with precision but more often than not using a cudgel, specially crafted from a tree branch. Wonder what these things may look like? Then wonder no more, because for your delight and delectation ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been able to track down a video (in Italian, sorry) which shows this tool of the accabadora (from about the 1min mark), in all of its gruesome glory (thanks to Andrew Collins):
As for the author, Michela Murgia, well this is my first time reading her – perhaps not surprising given that this is her debut in English – and I know surprisingly little about her aside from knowing that she was born in Cabras, Sardinia in 1972 and that she has worked as a religious studies teacher, a timeshare saleswoman and an administrator in a power plant. However, the fact that she has come along with a novel which has picked up six literary awards in Italy, speaks volumes. There must be something hugely competent about her, and I look forward to finding out exactly what, for myself.
The translator, Silvester Mazzarella is also new to me. The Canterbury-based multilingual translator seems more than up to the task however, having learned English from his mother, Italian from his father, and Swedish while teaching at the University of Helsinki. I look forward to tasting the fruits of his labour, so to speak.
So for now that’s all I can say I guess, and I’m left to the task of diving in to Accabadora. Weighing in at just a little over 200 pages it shouldn’t take me too long to tick this one off. So I should be back real soon – certainly before the book’s official publication date of October 27th – to let you know what I thought of it. For now stay safe, and be wary of any old ladies dressed in black who may come a-knockin’ on your door .
MacLehose Press | 27th October 2011 | £12.00 | HARDBACK | 208 PP | ISBN: 9780857050458
A note about forethoughts
‘Forethoughts’ offer an insight into what my initial thoughts and impressions of a book are before I begin reading it. Informal, and largely written as a stream-of-consciousness exercise in a single sitting, my ‘forethoughts’ capture an important stage of the reading experience for me – the anticipatory period before the book is first opened, when my excitement is piqued for the reading experience which lies ahead.
Blissfully ignorant my ‘forethoughts’ may well be, but when combined with my eventual ‘afterthoughts’, the result is a unique and comprehensive record of a very personal literary ‘journey’ through a particular book; a literary journey which will hopefully be of some value to other readers.