Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s novel, A Girl, Returned is a heartwarming delight. Given the premise, this is a surprise. The girl, unceremoniously returned to her birth family at the age of 13, is never named. But she is the narrator, and she faces an uphill struggle. Cast off from a petit-bourgeois, loving home and jettisoned into poverty-stricken circumstances (both financially and emotionally) the question is just what has she done to deserve this? It’s not a question, easily answered. And when it is, well, happily the girl has had time to toughen up. Otherwise the truth would have destroyed her.
As it is, we know it doesn’t. Because the girl is relating her experience from a distance of 20 years. The trauma of moving from being an only child to one of many, from being a princess to a cinderella, has been processed. Life goes on. Di Pietrantonio also provides other comforting salves to soothe a painful story. As Daniel Hahn, chair of Di Pietrantonio’s event, commented, he was so grateful for Adriana, the girl’s younger birth sister. She, despite her own bed-wetting psychological issues, became an ally and a sweetener. “That’s why she’s on the first page”, said Di Pietrantonio.
Di Pietrantonio didn’t know why the girl has been returned when she started writing. But she had this “burning idea” and discovered the secret as she wrote. The reader, however, discovers it at the same time as the girl. It’s nought but callous.
The depth of the novel, however, lies in its examination of the social schisms at the heart of Italian society. The educated vs the uneducated, the well-off vs the poor, town vs country. In addition, the divisions of language. Much of the novel, i.e the dialogue within the girl’s birth family, is written in the dialect of Abruzzo, Di Pietrantonio’s own dialect, and one, which has many words for country life, but none for expressing emotion. This linguistic shock (and the resulting emotional void) is another to which the girl must adapt.
As indeed, did the translator Ann Goldstein according to Daniel Hahn’s anecdotes. “Yes”, said Di Pietrantonio. “She asked me lots of precise, nuanced questions, which translators into other languages did not.” We can be sure, therefore, that the English translation is accurate, even if the differences between the languages of class are not as pronounced. (At least Goldstein didn’t invent some fake Northern dialect to denote the lower class – something which is beginning to annoy this Lancastrian reader.)
While I’m on the subject of translation or rather interpretation, let me comment on Lucinda Byatt’s interpreting of the event. No notes. No pauses. A discrete tapping on Di Pietrantonio’s arm to prevent her running too far ahead. Smooth and as far as I could tell, all main points covered. (I actually surprised myself with how much Italian I understood – mind Di Pietrantonio was speaking exceptionally clearly) Nevertheless, Byatt’s was one of the best translator performances I’ve seen at EIBF.