I voluntarily return to the place that killed my sister
Lips tremor with grief, hands tremor with age, voices tremor with anger. Italy has been wracked by earthquakes in recent years causing widespread devastation and loss of life. Bella Mia explores the aftermath of one such true event in the historic city of L’Aquila in the early hours of the 6th of April 2009.
At the heart of the story is a fictional family surviving in temporary shelter. Caterina, the central character, has lost her twin sister Olivia in the disaster, who was mother to a teenaged boy. A single woman and artist in her 30s, Caterina struggles to come to terms with her loss, making sacrifices to look after her newly bereaved nephew, Marco, while comforting her mother in her grief at the death of a child. They live in the ‘C.A.S.E.’, provisional accommodation in an artificial suburb lacking in essential services.
The nephew makes forbidden visits to the ‘Red Zone’, the historic town centre that now stands empty and deserted. Eerie details reveal a place frozen in time as dusty posters outside the cinema promote films showing the day before the earthquake. One building has lost its façade entirely, its contents exposed to the world including clothes hanging in an open wardrobe and pasta on the kitchen shelves. Marco sneaks in regularly to his cordoned-off house, a trespasser in his own home desperate to feel close to his late mother whose favourite snack, a jar of anchovies, still sits half eaten on the worktop.
This is a beautifully detailed account of the minutiae of daily life in extraordinary circumstances providing an unsentimental and realistic insight into the nature of sudden bereavement. At the cemetery, a friendship develops between two grieving mothers, one of whom has lost her six-year-old daughter and worries for all the children at rest there as the weather grows cold. Memories of two birthday cakes filling the fridge and the twins’ annual midnight toast in their shared childhood bedroom contrast with heartbreakingly intimate moments such as the cleansing of Olivia’s body by her sister and mother in preparation for the funeral.
Bella Mia is a prizewinning book with an important message about the real-life response to the disaster. Di Pietrantonio reveals how experts had reassured worried residents prior to the earthquake. After months of warning tremors, the Orwellian sounding ‘Italian National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks’ had declared it safe to stay in their homes when in reality, laws regarding construction of earthquake-proof buildings had not been properly enforced. Poorly built houses in an area prone to earthquakes were subsequently unable to withstand the impact.
The build-up to the fatal event is brought vividly to life as the family plans to hide under the kitchen table before fleeing the building. The earthquake is described in harrowing detail as birds fall silent and dogs start barking frantically in the early hours of the morning. A desperate search in the rubble for survivors ensues. The main tremor only lasted twenty seconds but its consequences persist to this day. Over three hundred people were killed including children and young students. One thousand five hundred were injured and around sixty five thousand made homeless from the town and nearby villages.
Caterina’s family endures a state funeral with rows of coffins lined up on a red carpet in the glare of photographers and television crews, followed by weeks living in shared tents.
We were privileged refugees at the camp. Famous chefs would come and cook for our meagre appetites
After recent events in Italy, this story powerfully resonates. Caterina’s reassurance that they only get one earthquake ‘every 300 years’ has already been sadly disproved. This year alone, earthquakes have affected the regions of Umbria, Le Marche, Lazio and Abruzzo, killing over two hundred people and highlighting the continuing state of limbo experienced by the survivors of 2009.
Today, L’Aquila’s centre remains unfinished amidst allegations that corruption has hindered progress. Part building site, part ghost town, many of its former residents are still languishing in temporary accommodation, their lives suspended as they wait, forced to come to terms with the likelihood that their old homes may have to be demolished and rebuilt.
The bureaucracy is mind-blowing, it slows the process down, every time we’re nearly there something else comes up
But Bella Mia is ultimately a story of human resilience. As time goes on, hearts that were already fractured before the earthquake and almost destroyed by it gradually begin to heal. The nephew tentatively restores his shattered relationship with his father, Caterina opens herself up to love, and a stray dog joins the family. The key message is one of fragile hope as lives are re-built and the Italian sense of community and tradition survives in adversity.
L’Aquila bella mia, my beloved, I want to see you again
About the publisher:
Calisi Press is an independent publisher committed to promoting unique and high-quality work by Italian women writers in translation. It was originally set up to publish Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s other great novel, My Mother is a River.
Review by Becky Danks
Becky Danks is an avid reader, creative writer, dog lover, poet, and reviewer of books. Based in London, she has lived in Rome and is a frequent visitor to Italy. Follow her on Twitter: @BeckyD123