Bella Mia by Donatella Di Pietrantonio
“Tomorrow is our birthday. The third, since.” Di Pietrantonio’s second novel is set against the backdrop of a natural disaster – the 2009 earthquake that killed 308 inhabitants of L’Aquila in central Italy – but, three years on, the lasting impact of physical destruction is as nothing to the emotional aftershock. As survivors learn to make new lives in temporary housing, planting gardens around pre-fabricated units (“I’m surprised at their loyalty to the treacherous earth”), the devastation is unrelenting. Viewed in unflinching close-up as one small family learns how to redefine the very notion, Bella Mia is haunted by the loss of Olivia and narrated by her twin sister as she, their mother and her teenage nephew learn to navigate around their anger and their overwhelming grief. ‘Bella mia’. My beautiful.
Bella Mia’s dense narrative belies its size: fewer than 200 pages and a revelation on every one. Di Pietrantonio’s gift for storytelling is sustained by the understated poetry of her language. Narrated with an arresting sobriety, much of its tragic backstory (not least the self-harm a sister will employ to survive the other's – "our" – birthday each year) will cause you to put the book down and pause. Still, Bella Mia makes clear, love endures and so must life. Translated from the original Italian by Franca Scurti Simpson, who has written with insight on 'the Ferrante effect', this magnficent work deserves no less attention.