Bella Mia, by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson), is set in L’Aquila, Italy, four years after the devastating earthquake of 6th April 2009 in which 300 people died, over 1500 were injured and around 65,000 had to leave their homes. The main characters in the story are still living in temporary buildings known as C.A.S.E (Complessi Antismici Sostenibili ed Ecocompatibili – sustainable and eco-compatible earthquake-proof housing complexes). They occupy a three room flat and hear neighbours through the too thin walls. It will likely be at least another two years before their damaged homes are reconstructed and they may return.
The story is told from the point of view of Caterina whose twin sister, Olivia, was killed in the earthquake. Caterina now shares accommodation with her mother and her dead sister’s teenage son, Marcus. All three are grieving for the loss of their beloved sister, daughter, mother. Marcus’s father, Roberto, is blamed for his wife’s death as he had left her for another women causing Olivia to leave the marital home in Rome and return to L’Aquila with their son. The boy had been taken in by his father following the earthquake but he could not settle so chose to reside with his aunt and grandmother. They too struggle to live with his moods.
The story is about coping with grief, loss and survivor’s guilt. Caterina had always regarded her twin as prettier, more accomplished and more popular. She ponders if the wrong sister died. Her mother takes fresh flowers to the cemetery each day – she has befriended a neighbour who also lost her daughter. Their housing complex is filled with people damaged by bereavement and forced displacement.
Caterina paints ceramics and has found a new workshop having lost the majority of her possessions on the night of the earthquake. Like many others she struggles to eat and to sleep, suffering recurring nightmares. She tries to be strong for her mother and nephew, to make some sense of the life they must now lead. She stays in touch with Roberto for the sake of his son, recognising that bridges must be built for the boy’s future. She resents that she must deal with the fallout each time Marcus misbehaves but values the comfort the presence of her only grandchild gives her mother.
The writing evokes the pain of loss and the pull of survival. The language and imagery should be savoured. A deep melancholy pervades each page yet somehow time passes and desires are rekindled. There are moments of colour – a new pair of shoes and the hope for an occasion to wear them, the creation of something that brings pleasure to others. There is much looking back as memories are mined, and a recognition that even before the disaster there were imperfections.
This is a tale to be reflected upon. It is too easy to become inured when each day’s news brings reports of extraordinary suffering from around the world. Stories such as this bring to life the humanity of the individuals involved. Empathy for the effects of such devastation matters. Ultimately there is hope – life goes on.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Calisi Press.