Accabadora, By Michela Murgia, trans. Silvester Mazzarella

Paul Bailey
Friday 02 December 2011 01:00 GMT

Michela Murgia's novel has been an immense success in Italy, where it has won six literary prizes. Accabadora is a Sardinian term for an angel of mercy who tends the chronically sick and dying, acting as a kind of midwife with eternity in view. The accabadora here is Bonaria Urrai, a seamstress unable to have children. Bonaria adopts the six-year-old Maria Listru, whose widowed mother Anna Teresa can no longer afford to raise her. Maria thus becomes a fill'e anima, a soul-child, the fruit of Anna Teresa's womb and Bonaria's loving spirit.

Accabadora is set, for the most part, in rural Sardinia in the 1950s. Life in Soreni hasn't changed much over the centuries, with the harvesting of grapes the major event. In such a closed community, gossip and suspicion are rife. Intelligence is regarded as a hindrance rather than a blessing, as Maria learns when she does well at school but is expected to leave when she reaches 13.

Anna Teresa mocks her youngest daughter as the preparations for the wedding of her firstborn, Bonacatta, get under way. She reminds the clever Maria that you don't need to be educated to cook, wash and clean, and do all the things women are put on this earth to do. Murgia has created an atmosphere reminiscent of the Sicily evoked in the magnificent stories of Giovanni Verga – a place where expectations can never be great and passion is a substitute for common sense.

At a crucial point, Maria dissociates herself from Bonaria. Maria's teacher finds the teenager a job as a nanny to the two children of a wealthy couple in Turin. Maria visits the "continent" for the first time, and in that cold city she begins to grow up. In the closing pages she returns to Soreni, a wiser young woman and a kinder one. The sad story ends on a hopeful note, with Maria finally succumbing to the gauche youth who declared his love for her when she considered herself his superior. She has been educated in the heart, and knows better now.

Murga's debut novel is an original work of serious accomplishment from a young writer whose future books will be eagerly anticipated. Her translator Silvester Mazzarella has served her well, apart from the occasional infelicitous Americanism.

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