Accabadora – Not Such a Magic Word

My most recent surprise package from MacLehose Press was a paperback edition of Accabadora, a recent prize-winning novel by Italian writer Michela Murgia (translated by Silvester Mazzarella).  Despite reviews from several familiar bloggers, it’s a book that had flown under my radar, and I decided to start it right away, knocking it off in less than a day.  A good thing or a bad thing?  Let’s see…

*****
Accabdora is set on Sardinia a few decades back.  As we start the book, we are introduced to an old lady, Bonaria Urrai, who has decided to informally adopt Maria Listru, the superfluous and little-regarded youngest daughter of a poverty-stricken villager.  Maria has no regrets about her change of scenery, quickly coming to treat her new guardian with love and respect, and the ever-nosy villagers eventually lose interest in the event.

However, the older Maria becomes, the more she wonders about Bonaria.  While she ostensibly earns her keep as a seamstress, her standing in society is much higher than that.  Why does she always wear black?  Why do people speak to her in hushed tones?  And why does she sometimes go out in the middle of the night…

Murgia’s debut novel starts out wonderfully, painting a picture of a society which, due to its place away from the larger centres of civilisation, still retains strong links to its traditional values.  The reader is drawn into the story by the description of local customs, and while there are plenty of questions left unanswered, we (like Maria) are more than happy to wait for the right time:

“Maria had not understood anything at all but nodded all the same, because you cannot always expect to understand everything you hear the minute you hear it.  In any case, she was still under the impression that Tzia Bonaria worked as a seamstress”
p.20 (MacLehose Press, 2012)

The question, of course, is whether Maria will be as happy when she finds out exactly what Bonaria actually does…

I won’t go into exactly what the role of an accabadora is (although there are plenty of reviews out there that do), but it’s safe to say that it’s a complex role and one that involves some serious ethical dilemmas.  About half-way through the novel, Bonaria is confronted with such a dilemma when a young man, whose leg was shot and then amputated, asks her for help she is unwilling to provide.  At which point…

…unfortunately, the story rapidly goes downhill.  You see, once we reach the dramatic turning point in Accabadora, it’s as if the writer’s spark is suddenly extinguished.  Where the first half of the novel is fascinating, pulling the reader along, what follows is dull, clichéd and, at times, ill conceived.  The inevitable revelation of Bonaria’s identity (known to everyone – including the reader – but Maria for some time) and the subsequent breach it causes are lacking in any kind of emotion – curious for what was surely the whole point of the set up.

Murgia then sends Maria away into an entirely unrelated sub-plot in Turin, which adds very little to the story, before dragging her back to the island to finish the book off as quickly as possible.  It’s as if the first part of the story almost wrote itself, but the rest just wouldn’t come out right.  I couldn’t help thinking that the book should either have been left as a novella, ending with Maria’s departure, or a much longer novel with the episode in Turin expanded and more closely related to the rest of the book.

In the end, I was disappointed with Accabadora, not because of my expectations (I didn’t have any) or because it is a bad book, but because the first half of the novel promised a lot which the second half failed to deliver.  In flicking through other reviews of the book (which, lest we forget, has won numerous prizes), I saw overwhelmingly-positive write-ups, but I did come across a few with similar reservations to my own.  A different reader may enjoy the way Murgia has structured Accabadora – sadly, I didn’t…

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8 thoughts on “Accabadora – Not Such a Magic Word

  1. This had elements that intrigued but it sounds not enough to sustain the whole book Shame when that happens because what's left often appears forced or maybe the author had a preconceived ending that she had trouble reaching again creating a forced feeling.

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  2. I agree to a degree. Overall, although I felt it was nothing really remarkable, I liked it. And yes, the first half was better than the second half. In many respects, I think it got away with it because it was so slight.

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  3. Yours is the second review that didn't like this much. I was really looking forward to it, never read a story set in Sardinia before. I think it was Marie at The Boston Bibliophile who didn't like it either. I'll try it anyway, maybe there's enough there for me. Thanks for an honest opinion.

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  4. Sandra – As I said in the review, there's a lot to like there, but it really falls down towards the end. I think this is a case of a good short-story writer struggling to extend a piece into a novel…

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