The Hollow Heart, by Viola di Grado - Book review: Each sentence lures us further into the flies and blood-filled dreamworld

Death – the inside story

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The Independent Culture

In her second novel, The Hollow Heart, the London-based, Italian author Viola di Grado embraces the gothic and macabre with relish. The narrator, Dorotea Giglio, is dead at the age of 25. She has killed herself by slitting her wrists in her bath and she embarks on a swirling, luminous journey into the afterlife. That we are convinced by this is testament to the hypnotic and mesmerising quality of Di Grado’s writing.

Dorotea observes the gloomy machinations of death – rigor mortis, putrefaction, oblivion – with deadpan coolness. A disembodied ghost, no longer part of the world, she clings on, unwilling to let go of her former life. Images of insects creeping under pale skin and long hair bring to mind a morbid, distinctly female, romanticism of death and self-destruction.

This eerie romanticism is firmly rooted in a hyper-contemporary world. Her  ex-boyfriend dumped her “in seven hundred characters”. A corpse is “just right for stirring pity on social media” and death is consolidated by the erasing of her Facebook profile. There is an obsession with the surface and curation of images that trails back to memories of life with a dysfunctional mother using her as a photographic model as a child.

The plot spirals inwards, tightly wound, and there is a confessional earnestness which can be unsettling and verges on an over-exposure of the self. By page 16 we have been introduced to three abandonments. Father issues are displayed almost proudly. There is much talk of anti-depressants.

Ultimately, it is the writing that elevates this book. Quirky, crisp, with plenty of dark, clever humour: “My skeleton and I love each other. We’re in a kind of open relationship.” Peppered throughout are references to iconic female figures who form a constellation of dark angels responsible for guiding Dorotea towards suicide: Violet Trefusis, Amy Winehouse, Frieda Kahlo and Sinead O’Connor.

The novel is a fairy tale gone bad, with echoes of Angela Carter without the Postmodernism. At one point, Dorotea says of a programme flickering on the TV, “they were showing an American series with vampires or ghosts or young couples in love, it wasn’t clear yet”. The same can be said of The Hollow Heart. I am not sure if it is a literary young-adult novel wrapped in a ghost story, but in the end definitions don’t matter because the writing is pristine. Each sentence lures us further into the flies and blood-filled spirals of Di Grado’s dreamworld and, most importantly, we are willing to follow her.

Suzanne Joinson is the author of A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar