Sunday, June 26, 2011

From the Land of the Moon by Milena Agus (translated fiction)

Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

"She had to begin to live.  Because the Veteran was a moment and grandmother's life was many other things."

Thought to be insane by her family, the grandmother in this story attempts to recreate a sane and normal life to prove them wrong.  Her reputation and behavior dissuades suitors from pursuing her, and without marriage, life in a small Italian village circa WWII leaves her a social outcast.  Shortly before the war ends, however, she meets a widower who agrees to marry her;  it appears to most that he did so only out of duty to her family for their supporting him financially.  Their marriage is marked by tolerable distance and quietness, and while she wishes for children, health issues prevent her from carrying a child full-term. 

Eventually her husband sends her to a health spa on the sea, in the hopes she'll heal and recover.  Perhaps she does so, but too well.  For there she meets a man she refers to only as the "Veteran", one who loves her unconditionally and who finds her far more fascinating and vibrant than any 'normal' woman.  He thinks she's beautiful, intelligent, and witty.  Finally she is loved for who she is...until it's time for her to return home.

She returns home with new vigor and soon discovers she's pregnant.  Her husband is thrilled and their marriage appears to thrive amid the love for their new son.  But who is the Veteran?  Will she see him again?  Why did she return if she was so loved?

Milena Agus frames the story as a narrative between the grandmother and her granddaughter, both unnamed, and flashes back and forth through different parts of their family history.  The grandmother is a complex character:  a woman who will secretly work like a slave to acquire a piano for her musical son, but who is unable to bear hearing him play it.  As the granddaughter hears her story, she has to evaluate how much of it is true, and begins to question what role the Veteran ultimately had.  More and more questions appear, but Agus keeps the story tight and keeps revealing details right until the end that ultimately turn the story upside down.  Nothing can be taken at face value, and while the grandmother is possibly an unreliable narrator, maybe the granddaughter is too.

The story is fast-paced and hard to predict, and surprises are sprinkled throughout.  Images of the grandmother searching Milan, looking for the Veteran around every corner, are detailed so intricately one can practically feel the fog that obscures the city and her motives.  Italy plays a supporting role as the sun and the sea seem to brighten the background of simple village life even during wartime.  If anything, the story is almost too quick.  More questions could have been answered or expanded upon.  Yet in all, a satisfying glimpse of human perception and frailties.

Special thanks to Europa Editions for the Advance Review Copy.

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