Friday, 5 February 2016

Book Review: The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

For many children the world is a thrilling place full of mystery and adventure that they are allowed to discover step by step, while for others it has in store mainly misery, pain and reproaches. Not every child is blessed with a carefree and happy existence! The six-year-old protagonist of The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni had a poor start into life although she was born in Switzerland. She passed her early years in a typical orphanage of the 1970s until a childless Swiss couple “buys” her for 365,-- francs and takes her home with them. All of a sudden she finds herself in a confusing new world filled with words that nobody ever bothered to teach her and with good reasons that she doesn’t know. In ancient and senile grand-father Tat the girl finds an invaluable ally who helps her to find her way.

Monica Cantieni was born in Thalwil, Switzerland, in March 1965. Although the author has her own website at, online information about her is scarce. Apart from publishing short stories in German-language literary journals and anthologies, she won several Swiss writers’ awards. In 1996 she brought out her first book titled Hieronymus’ Kinder (Hieronymus’ Children) which was followed by the play Lucia, Mädchen (Lucia, Girl) in 1998. Her much praised first novel, The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons (Grünschnabel), appeared only in 2011 and has been translated into several languages. Monica Cantieni is head of Multimedia in the Cultural Department of Swiss Radio and Television and lives in Wettingen, Switzerland.

The story of the narrating girl without name and The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons starts in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Zurich in the 1970s. Her new parents paid 365,-- francs to take the six-year-old from the orphanage, but she doubts that she’ll last with them because others have returned her before. Also this couple quickly notices that there’s something wrong with her eyes and that her language is shockingly limited for a girl of her age. They don’t return her, though. They have her made glasses and a doctor reassures them that she just needs time to adapt. Her father patiently sets out to teach her new words and he encourages her to store them in themed boxes where they won’t get lost, while her mother – less patiently – takes care of the rest when she isn’t in one of her sad moods. The girl quickly settles down among Swiss of very humble means, legal and illegal immigrants. She particularly likes the Spaniard Eli and the Italian Toni. Since she is a foster child in line for adoption, social workers drop by every so often to make sure that everything is fine. She also goes to school where she learns to read and write, but the other children taunt her as an orphanage brat and she gets into fights. Once she almost kills a girl with a shovel! In the weekends they visit grand-father Tat on the mountain farm where he still lives helped only by a neighbour although he is a feeble and increasingly forgetful old man who lost one leg in a motorcycle accident and the other because he wouldn’t give up his cigars. His grand-daughter knows so little about life that Tat lovingly calls her greenhorn and he suggests to begin their Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons that will help her understand the world.

As a first-person narrative of an orphan girl settling in a new family The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons is a highly imaginative and intelligent story, not least because the girl starts out from the detached point of view of an article just taken from the shelf for inspection. As time progresses, she changes ever more into a person or rather into a child who has found her place in society and with it a certain degree of comprehension or simply confidence. The author got about her task with great sensitivity and the skill to bring up serious topics like the effects of restrictive immigration laws on the lives of individuals – notably Eli who goes into hiding to avoid deportation and Toni who conceals his daughter Milena in the cupboard because the authorities haven’t given permission to bring her to Switzerland – in a way as a child might observe them without fully understanding. The characters making up the girl’s new family and peopling the neighbourhood are very true to life. The language is adapted to the needs of the story without being too simple and unpolished to please adult readers. Above all it is rich in images and words that a six-year-old with limited vocabulary might invent to describe her world which adds considerably to the pleasure of the read.

The Encyclopaedia of Good Reasons by Monica Cantieni is just as much a thought-provoking novella as it is a quick and entertaining read. Despite its setting in a recent past, it’s a sociocritical work dealing with several highly topical themes in a way as I like it, i.e. with great understanding and without being in the least schoolmasterly. I enjoyed reading this novella from Switzerland immensely and finished it in only one go. And of course, I recommend it warmly!

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