A Girl Returned by Donatella Di Pietrantonio. Europa| July 2019| 160 pages | $16.00| ISBN: 978-1-60945-528-6
A Girl Returned is a short, strong, brilliant novel. In 1975, a 13-year-old girl is returned to her birth family, a family she doesn’t know at all. She’d been living in the city with the only mother she’d known. It’s unclear why her adoptive mother sent her back. We know early on that the wealthy mother wanted a child and the other mother could hardly afford to have another child and it was best all-around if this girl went off to live on the shore. The narrator is looking back on her life twenty years later. She’d grown up affluent, cultured and educated. It’s a shock to return to an impoverished, dysfunctional and abusive family.
She shares a bed with her sister, sleeping head-to-toe. The sister, Adriana, wets the bed. She recalls: “In order to get at least a little sleep, I would remember the sea: the sea a few dozen meters from the house I’d thought was my home and I had lived in since I was an infant until a few days earlier. Only the road separated the yard from the beach, and on days of libeccio, the southwest wind, my mother closed the windows and lowered the shutters completely to keep the sand from getting in. But you heard the sound of the waves, slightly muffled, and at night it made you sleepy. I remembered it in the bed with Adriana.”
Her teenage brothers also share the room. One of her brothers, Sergio, torments her. He’s bad, cruel and crude. He masturbates while staring at her breasts. He once throws a pigeon with a broken wing, who became trapped in the children’s bedroom, out the window. He’s spiteful about her upbringing. Vincenzo, the oldest brother, sexually abuses her in a confusing we’re related-but-are-we-really-we-don’t-know-each-other way. Her parents beat the children. There oftentimes isn’t enough money for food. There’s a lot of neglect. Despite everything, the girl becomes close with her sister Adriana. She’s protective of the younger girl. Then a tragedy befalls the oldest son Vincenzo which affects the entire family.
She’s hopeful for a while that the “seaside mother” who she’s known for the longest time will come get her and bring her back to the city house. She writes to the mother and although she never receives answers, the mother starts to send money as well as various necessities such as a new bed, a comforter, a set of sheets. The other mother will pay for the girl to attend school. When she receives a high mark at school, she thinks: “My mother would indeed have been pleased, if she could have seen it. She still worried about me, albeit from a distance, more than she worried about her illness: I refused to stop believing that. And yet, 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.”
Can you even imagine being sent back to a family you don’t know as you’re growing into adolescence? As you go through puberty and your mind and body change to no longer have the anchor of your home and mother would be brutal and exhaustive. It’s truly the epitome of a nightmare. Even if you didn’t have the best relationship with your mother during your teenage years, you had a familiar mother. The novel’s written with brutal moments and scenes and beautiful turns of phrase. It’s also a redeeming story about perseverance and resilience. This girl makes the best of the situation. She bonds with her sister and she learns to survive. She finds some positive in all the negative and that’s truly remarkable and heart-warming. She’s a smart, brave girl. A Girl Returned is thoughtful, provocative and extremely moving.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa.