translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein.
A Girl Returned came to my attention because I like to see what Europa Editions are going to be publishing, they are known for bringing Italian literature to readers of the English language and their big title in 2020 will be Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults. One I will be reading soon.
The Adoptee Experience
I chose to read A Girl Returned because I am interested in reading as much as possible, fiction or nonfiction, stories that portray the adoptee experience. And the premise of this book is shocking as the title suggests, when a thirteen year old girl is returned to the family she is born into without being told why or there appearing to be any clear motive.
Though as anyone with a connection with adoption will know, it is rare for the process to exist without the presence of secrets, lies, clandestine activities, resentments, heartbreak and denial.
I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother.
The story opens as a 13-year-old girl struggles up the stairs of an apartment with an unwieldy suitcase and a bag of jumbled shoes. The door is opened by her sister Adriana, whom she has never met.
We looked like each then, more than we do as adults.
Through the months of adjustment that follow, thrown back into the reluctant family she was born into, events are narrated with hindsight, as her memory of that vision of her sister attests. She is determined to unravel the cause of this separation and abandonment by both sets of parents, at birth by her biological family and at 13 by her adoptive family, the latter, whose love she never questioned.
Aware her mother had been suffering, she continues to worry and wonder about her, we the reader do too, trying to imagine and fearful of what might have ailed her that she was unable to share with her only daughter.
Who knew how my mother was. Whether she’d started eating again, whether she was getting out of bed more often. Or if instead she’d been taken to hospital. She hadn’t wanted to tell me anything about her illness, certainly she didn’t want to frighten me, but I had seen her suffering in the past months, she hadn’t even gone to the beach, she who was usually there in the first warm days of May. With her permission I went to our umbrella by myself, since I was grown up now, she said. I had gone the day before my departure and had even had fun with my friends: I didn’t believe that my parents would really find the courage to give me back.
As time passes, small clues diminish her resolve and trust in those around her, who seem to believe in or at least practice, silence and deception. The only way will be to take matters into her own hands.
The idea came to me at night, I reported it to Patrizia in the morning under the umbrella.
The one unexpected joy in her changed circumstances, though she accepts it reluctantly and is wary of it, is the fierce love, and admiration tinged with jealousy, she receives from her younger sister. Like candle light in a dark room, she is luminous yet capable of harm. There are wild differences, given their different upbringings, but there exists the thread of undeniable connection.
I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family. I was the arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.
Identity, Exile and The Mother
In a brilliant essay-style review, translator Stiliana Milkova suggests that the main concern of the novel is how essential the role of the mother is to our sense of identity.
Looking at mothers as the figures that determine and define who we are allows us to think about A Girl Returned as a novel about exile and dislocation, rather than simply motherhood. The Arminuta (a word that in the language of the Abruzzo region of Italy means “the returned”) is unexpectedly forced to leave her maternal home, or what she considers her maternal home, and exiled to a place whose customs, and even the language, are almost foreign to her.
The longer she stays in this forced exile, the more detached she becomes from both her present and her past, to who she was, is. So much had been tied to a mother’s love or bond. Though she remembers the feeling of being loved, she now questions it, faced with such devastating evidence.
In certain melancholy moods, I felt forgotten. I’d fallen out of her thoughts. There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.
A short novel, A Girl Returned packs a powerful, moving punch and generously provides that glimmer of hope, in an unexpected alliance. Rereading these passages I highlighted makes me wish to repeat the entire reading experience, the shock, the solace, the resistance and resilience.
We look less like each other now, but we find the same meaning in this being thrown into the world.
Bella Mia by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2014, translated to English in 2016)
My Mother is a River by Donatella Di Pietrantonio, review by HeavenAli (Published in 2011, translated into English 2015)
Reviews by Translators: The Mother Of All Questions: Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s “A Girl Returned,” tr. Ann Goldstein by Stiliano Milkova
Article New York Times: ‘The Ferrante Effect’: In Italy, Women Writers Are Ascendant by Anna Momigliano
N.B. Thank you kindly to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of the book.