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Viola Di Grado: Settanta acrilico trenta lana (70% Acrylic 30% Wool)

Our heroine narrator is Camila Mega. She is an Italian woman from Turin but, when she was seven, she moved with her parents to Leeds in England. Her father is a journalist and managed to get a position with a local Leeds newspaper. Her mother, Livia, is a professional flautist and plays in concerts and on the radio. Camila has obtained a place at Leeds University to study Chinese and has already rented a flat where she will live away from her parents. Then, one day, her father’s car crashes into a ditch and he is killed, together with his girlfriend, a fellow journalist on the paper.

The death and the manner of the death of the father has a devastating effect on both his wife and daughter. Camila immediately abandons her studies and abandons her flat (with all her personal belonging, including her phone, which she tells the landlord to throw away) and moves back in with her mother. Both women gradually stop talking and communicate by what can only be described as a form of ESP, with the exception of occasional written messages and hand signals. Livia does not go out, does not wash (Camila occasionally manages to drag her into the shower) and, indeed, does not do much of anything except watch TV. When Camila buys her a Polaroid, she photographs holes – woodworm holes, holes in clothing, holes in the curtains, plug holes, any holes she can find.

They have some savings so money is not an immediate problem. Camila goes out to the supermarket to buy food, so they do eat. She even manages to get a job, translating washing machine manuals from English to Italian. She gets her mother a parrot but that does not work out and eventually, the parrot escapes. Livia’s mother turns up to help but has no success and goes back home.

This might all seem irredeemably grim and, in many ways, it is, with two women clearly seriously depressed, but Di Grado, while not ignoring the grim side, treats it with a laconic, quirky approach, mocking and criticising. Though Camila has lived most of her life in Leeds (or, maybe, because of that), she is highly critical of the city.

In Leeds, where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before.

This is by no means the only scathing remark she makes about Leeds and its people, with the weather often but by no means always being the focus. (It is a good thing she did not go to Newcastle, where they consider Leeds to be virtually in the Tropics.)

Though they do have some money, they do need clothing and a nearby skip seems to help, as someone seems to be throwing away various new and almost new, albeit very badly made clothing into this skip, from which Camila helps herself, and then wears dresses with, for example, three sleeves. She sometimes further decorates the clothes herself.

However, the dresses clearly came from somebody and that somebody is a Chinese man called Wen, who recognises his dress on her and challenges her. She learns that he has a clothes shop but also a somewhat mentally disturbed tailor, who turns out to be his brother Jimmy. Camila was going to learn Chinese and when Wen learns this, he offers to teach her. She eventually accepts and we plunge into the complications of learning Chinese. Chinese characters are made up of radicals (she calls them keys) and she wishes to learn the language that way, by learning the radicals, a method he does not recommend.

She makes progress, pasting up Chinese characters all over the house, to her mother’s disgust. He then invites her to his house in Knaresborough (about ten miles from Leeds) and she misinterprets his intentions and they are back to square one. Things get worse when she meets his brother Jimmy and gets on with him, though progress does seem to be made when she pays for her mother to go on a photography course and her mother actually goes.

In many respects, this book is about language. Camila comes from a bilingual background. Though you cannot see this in the translation, the original Italian mixes in quite a few English words and phrases. The two women lose language, in that they no longer communicate by spoken language. She is translating the washing machine manual and key phrases from that manual pop up throughout the book. She is learning another foreign language, which she abandons and resumes. Her Chinese learning is key to the book and we get a lot about it. In one episode, when she is reminiscing about her father, she remembers him telling her a story from the film Kwaidan, when he rented the DVD of the film, where a blind musician has his body covered in the text of a sutra to protect him from ghosts but his ears are not covered. (You can read a more detailed summary in the link in the Hoichi the Earless section.)

It is also about life getting away fron two people. She gives us various symbols of this: the parrot escaping, the decidedly miserable Italian video she keeps trying to rent which, when she gets home, turns out to have another video in the box, the Leeds weather, the Leeds cemetery, where she often seems to end up, the fairly ordinary people of Leeds, whom she often sees as less than ordinary, the flowers (which seem to grow, despite the weather) and with which she has a love/hate relationship and even her harking back to the time with is father when she tells him she does not want stories.

Despite Camila’s quirkiness, which is sometimes positive but all too often not, this is a fairly grim and sad novel, as we follow two women sinking into depression and seemingly unable to do much about it. When there are chinks of light and you think they might escape and return to normality, it all too often seems to go wrong. Some of it is presumably part of the immigrant experience, two of the main characters being Italian and two Chinese but, overall, you get the feeling that these people might have trouble fitting in anywhere.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Edizioni e/o
First English translation by Europa in 2012
Translated by Michael Reynolds