Recovery in Ruins: A Review of Bella Mia

Caterina has always identified herself in relation to her sister; she was the ‘other’ twin.

In the wake of the more recent earthquakes in central Italy it seems painfully appropriate that Calisi Press should choose to release the English translation of Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s award winning Bella Mia, set in the aftermath of the devastating 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aqualia in 2009, the deadliest Italy had seen since 1980.

In the early hours of 6 April, 2009, amidst the chaos of the tremors, one woman dies. She leaves her only son behind, left in the care of her surviving twin sister, Caterina, and their elderly mother. The broken family becomes the center for Pietrantonio’s moving tale of recovery. Set in the ruins of a family and the wreckage of the city, the story details the delicate stages of grief as each character moves to re-build their lives after the disaster.

Caterina’s sister Olivia was a constant presence in her life, and one cannot help but think of the powerful female relationships depicted in Ferrante’s novels when reading Caterina’s memories of the two as children, surviving the complex and riddled world of the schoolyard and vying for attention from their peers. In her death, Olivia becomes omnipresent in the lives of those she has left behind: her son blindly chases cars driven by women who look like her; her mother builds her day around visiting her grave, her sister still wears her clothes for good luck. Caterina’s survival guilt is evident—she is ‘alive by mistake’ as far as her nephew is concerned—and the constant expectation that she ‘should be his spare mother’ rather than his grieving aunt torments her. ‘We could have swapped deaths, as we’d always swapped clothes, books, occasions,’ Caterina obsesses. She dwells on the inevitable, unanswerable question: why her? Why was fate kind to her and not her twin? For two people so tightly bound for so many years, why at this point in time were they so violently torn apart?

We follow Caterina through the confusion that accompanies grief and the strange stillness that follows the colossal destruction of natural disasters. We go through the motions—the identifying of the body, the washing and dressing of her cold corpse—witnessing such responsibilities with vivid and unapologetic details: ‘A coarse dust covered her, the hands and unblemished face in particular, like a heavy face powder for an unspeakable carnival parade.’ In her dreams, ‘she’s born in reverse into a malignant and invisible womb, she dies a blinding death.’ Yet for all her vanishing, Olivia leaves a piece of herself to Caterina through her teenage son. But, unprepared for the aggressive and unpredictable forms his mourning will take, Caterina struggles to hold onto the one person who may understand her pain.

But then comes love, love in all its forms, leaking through the cracks that the earthquake left behind; Caterina’s mother kindles a new friendship with a fellow graveyard visitor, her nephew finds a canine companion, and later a girl to text his troubles to late at night. The possibility of life after death finally begins to rouse itself, even literally when one villager becomes pregnant.

Caterina, too, finds solace in a love that awakens her from her grief. ‘He carelessly breaks through the opaque bubble of mourning that I have retreated into, my refuge from desire and its complications.’ Her lover leaves a note in which she uncovers her new identity, she relishes ‘all the bits that include you. They make me believe I exist, that someone might appreciate my little life’. She comes to live again through the eyes of another. The attentions she receives are small but secure acts of love—a meal, a kiss, a text. Small acts, but ones that build up like bricks in the wake of tragedy that has literally shaken the foundation upon which Caterina lives her life.

One wonders if Ian McEwan’s most recent novel Nutshell took inspiration from Pietrantonio’s protagonist, as she frequently imagines the ‘intrauterine lives’ of herself and her sister. As the smaller twin while both were ‘immersed in the sweet ocean that was our mother,’ she remained lesser, ‘squished’ between the spine and her sister. Caterina has always identified herself in relation to her sister; she was the ‘other’ twin, the one who received no ‘external influences’ in the womb, but instead stayed in the dark depths, neglected, physically and mentally less developed. It soon becomes apparent that part of Caterina’s recovery from the earthquake’s devastation is not simply coming to terms with her sister’s death, but with her identity without her ‘better’ half.

As Italy emerges from the wreckage of yet more earthquakes—last year alone saw a 6.2 magnitude near Amatrice in August, followed by a 6.1 in Visso at the end of October, and mere days later the destruction of Arquata del Tronto by a 6.6—finding one’s feet in a country shaken by death seems an increasingly daunting task. With more earthquakes expected and many people attempting to rebuild lives on uncertain ground, Franca Simpson’s translation of Pietrantonio’s novel of hope feels not merely timely, but necessary. Negotiating the strange afterlife of natural destruction, where often only Mother Nature can take the blame, the story of Caterina’s recovery and self-discovery after the loss of her sister, despite all that the world throws at her, reveals itself as essential reading.

Thea Hawlin (Ha-V-lin) is a writer, artist, and social media manager at Asymptote. After graduating from the University of Cambridge in English Literature and running away to Italy, she has gone on to write for a variety of publications, including AnOther, VICE, Harper’s Bazaar, and the Times Literary Supplement. Her most recent fiction can be found in the forthcoming Next Review.


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