Friday, 26 July 2013

Book Review: Accabadora by Michela Murgia and death are the two constants circumscribing our lives. They accompany us every day, if we are aware of them or not. Most religions venerate life and protect it. 'Thou shalt not kill' is one of the ten commandments and similar rules exist even in the most primitive societies. Today we are convinced that life is something holy and that nobody has the right to end it before the time. Except during a war and in self-defence murder is a crime, no matter the reasons. Euthanasia is a much disputed topic and Michela Murgia deals with it in her novel Accabadora although it's not really in the centre of her attention as the title makes expect.

Michela Murgia was born in Cabras, Sardinia, Italy in June 1972. She studied Roman Catholic theology and worked among others as religious studies teacher and a saleswoman. Her debut novel Il mondo deve sapere (The World Must Know) developed from a blog about her experiences working in a call centre and came out as a book in 2006. Her biggest success so far is the bestselling novel Accabadora from 2009 which received several literary awards and has been translated into many languages. Her latest published works are the narrative L'incontro (The Encounter) and her contribution to the diary of four Italian writers titled Presente (Present).

The story of Accabadora is set in the small Sardinian village Soreni in the early 1950s. Six-year-old Maria Listru is the unwanted fourth daughter of a widow who has a hard time feeding her family. When Bonaria Urrai, an unmarried woman in her late fifties, observes at the grocer's how ill the girl is treated by her mother, she decides to take her as a 'fill'e anima' (a 'soul child' translated literally into English) which is an informal kind of adoption common in Sardinia for centuries. Maria's mother gladly accepts with the secret hope of profiting indirectly from the relative wealth of Bonaria Urrai. Maria perceives leaving her family of origin to live with her new mother, whom she will always call Tzia Bonaria, as her second birth. Bonaria isn't a very affectionate person – maybe because her dream of marriage was crushed by World War I which robbed her of her fiancé, maybe because it has always been her nature –, but she treats Maria well and instils strong principles in the girl. She insists that Maria goes to school for longer than most villagers consider necessary and doesn't allow the Listru to exploit her when they need someone to help out. For a living Bonaria works as a dressmaker for both women and men, a profession which she teaches to Maria. However, Bonaria Urrai also has a secret occupation and she hides it from her adopted daughter best she can. Intelligent as Maria is, she knows all along that there is something about Tzia Bonaria of which she is ignorant, but she is forbidden to ask questions about the people coming to fetch her at night or about her doings. When her friend Andria Bastíu tells Maria that he watched Bonaria suffocating his crippled elder brother with a pillow one night, she doesn't believe him. Tzia Bonaria doesn't deny it and it dawns on Maria that her second mother is an 'accabadora' (most accurately translated into English as 'finisher'), a woman who kills the agonizing out of mercy. Maria is shocked and disgusted. With the help of her teacher Luciana she moves to Turin as a nanny, but stays there only for little more than a year trying to forget. In the meantime Bonaria Urrai's health is deteriorating. Eventually she has a stroke and is bedridden which requires Maria to return to Soreni. Nursing Tzia Bonaria and watching not only her decline, but also her long agony, she begins to understand the reasons why she was an 'accabadora', one of the last in a long Sardinian tradition.

The story of Maria Listru and the Accabadora Bonaria Urrai is a quiet one which focuses on the growing-up girl. With the exception of ruthless gossip, ancient superstition and a neighbourhood row which costs Andria's brother a leg and his living will, there isn't really much going on in the rural environment which Michela Murgia describes with so much skill. The characters of the novel are quite ordinary ones, but they are carved out expertly in the author's elegant language. Besides, the entire plot is embedded in the social system and the centuries-old traditions of their country which have been quietly slipping into oblivion after World War II.

Accabadora may not have been the kind of novel which I had expected when I bought the book a few weeks ago, but it was a very enjoyable read after all. In fact, I highly recommend it.

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