Wednesday, November 21, 2012

REVIEW: 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool, by Viola di Grado

70% Acrylic 30% Wool, by Viola di Grado. Published 2012 by Europa Editions.

So, another Europa I'm going to have a hard time reviewing. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is the story of Camelia Mega and her mother, Italians who have been living in the town of Leeds in England for several years. Her father is dead; he died in a very undignified manner, in a car accident with his lover. His death has shattered his wife and daughter. Camelia's mother has not spoken in ages; nor has she left the house. Camelia herself is barely functional, with a marginal job translating for a washing machine company and a hobby of mutilating discarded clothes.

The clothes show up in a dumpster periodically, left there by Wen, a young Chinese man who runs a shop with his brother Jimmy. Camelia was once a student of Chinese; when she meets Wen he offers to give her lessons, and her relationship with him has some hope of lifting her out of her emotionally catatonic state. A marker of her mental condition is her attitude towards the passing of time:
One day it was still December. Especially in Leeds, where winter has been underway for such a long time that nobody is old enough to have seen what came before. It snowed all day, except for a brief autumnal parenthesis in August that stirred the leaves a little and then went back to whence it had come, like a warm-up band before the headliner.
She hates Leeds, hates its dreariness and cold, but when she resumes her Chinese lessons and develops affection for Wen, time starts to move again: "The next day was Tuesday. I remember the day distinctly because it was then that December suddenly began to specify itself in days of the week." Meanwhile, unknown to Camelia, her mother is making her own attempt at surfacing from her own torpor. Her mother likes to take pictures inside the house with a Polaroid camera so Camelia, trying to help her mother, enrolls her in a photography class. The results of this move will color both of their lives for a long time to come.

So what did I think? Viola di Grado won the Campiello First Novel Prize for this, her debut novel; the closest American prize I can think of for this book would be the Shirley Jackson Award. There was something of We Have Always Lived in the Castle in this claustrophobic, suspenseful and difficult story; maybe We Have Always Lived in a Hovel In Leeds. I mean this as a compliment, but it does almost strike me as a work of psychological horror. It's so incredibly dark, so very full of frustration for Camelia and for us, and it doesn't end well. It has an arc similar to Jackson's novel, though the intruder appears rather late in the game. I enjoyed reading it but this slim little novel felt very heavy indeed as I put it down.


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Europa Editions.


Alex in Leeds said...

Oh dear, a hovel in Leeds? What will the rest of the world think of my city if they learn it is a place where it is always winter? *giggle*

To be honest, it is pretty much always autumn or winter here and I can't see myself living here forever. Sounds like an interesting book though even without the setting catching my eye. I'm adding it to my wishlist as yet again I have been reminded I really should take a look at the Europa Editions a little more often. :)

Mystica said...

Ilike the story of this book. Sounds good.

Shalet Jimmy said...

Sounds like a good read...