The book covered in today’s post was, like one of last week’s choices, one of those surprises I get in the post from time to time, and I actually read it and dutifully took notes a few months back. Sadly, I was slightly side-tracked by the announcement of the International Booker Prize longlist, so the review had to wait until I found time for a reread – and I’m very glad I did. You see, while the first run through was fairly underwhelming, I had a slightly different, and more positive, experience second time around, as you’re about to learn. Perhaps I enjoyed it more once I found the writer less of a stranger 😉
Claudia Durastanti’s Strangers I Know (translated by Elizabeth Harris, review copy courtesy of Text Publishing) is an autobiographical work consisting of stories and musings divided into sections such as Family, Travels and Love. There are many short parts within the main sections, most only running to a few pages, making this an easy book to pick up and put down at your leisure.
The strangers of the title turn out to be, surprisingly perhaps, the writer’s parents. The first part of the book is dominated by Durastanti’s larger-than-life mother and father, both deaf, but able to get by in their own, inimitable way. They’re an intriguing couple, a pair refusing to make compromises, instead almost trying to bend the world to their will. It’s little wonder that they play such a major role in the book at times, as the writer works through her relationship with them, remembering her childhood and only in retrospect realising just how strange some of it was.
However, the translated title is actually deceiving, with the original Italian choice being La straniera (The (Female) Stranger). I think most readers will understand the reason behind the choice, but this change does alter the focus somewhat. While the parents dominate the early passages, the book is really about Claudia herself, a woman with an unusual upbringing. Born in the USA, but spending her childhood/youth in Italy, she moves back and forth across the Atlantic, not really fitting in in either country – a stranger wherever she goes.
Durastanti’s childhood is rather dark in many ways, and we’re shown her father’s erratic behaviour and the seeming neglect of her mother. The writer herself often glosses over this, taking a light approach:
There’s not a single act of violence in my life that I can recall without laughing.
p.134 (Text Publishing)
This approach is highlighted in a story where a local boy tells of the most traumatic event from his childhood, one we learn actually involved the writer’s family, not his. Even if she attempts to shrug all of this off, though, hints of the effects of these events seep through later as she hints at her own issues.
As mentioned in my introduction, this was my second read of Strangers I Know, and if I’m honest, had I written this review back in February, it would have been a lot more negative. I suspect I’m not as much of a fan of this confessional auto-fictional genre as many others (see my review of The Book of Mother…), and self-indulgent is the word that often springs to mind when reading this kind of book. Many readers seem fascinated by the insights revealed in these lightly fictionalised autobiographies, but I often wonder whether all the dirty laundry might have been better aired somewhere more private.
However, I did enjoy the second attempt more, and I found it especially good when the writing becomes more general, essayistic. There’s a nice section on work and money, where Durastanti uses her university studies and own experiences in discussing poverty:
Poverty is a blot in the cells, the smudging of one’s DNA. Nothing realigns after an adolescence spent in need. You don’t learn to eat differently, like someone who’s not hungry. Every time I have to leave something on my plate because others are, or because I’m full, I feel my disgust take over, a violence towards myself, and I have to count to ten, or else I can’t do it. (p.249)
As someone who grew up in a relatively poor household, there’s a lot in this section that rang uncomfortably true.
Another topic I enjoyed was the discussions on language. The writer describes her mother’s idiosyncratic use of whatever language surrounded her, supplemented by gestures, and it was interesting to hear about Durastanti’s inability to use sign language (because her parents refused to use it). There’s also a nice section on how her parents preferred real-life stories to fiction, resulting in a refusal to engage with the lies of language.
Speaking about lies of language, there are times when the reader will be unsure just what it is they’re being told. The UK edition is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, who have placed it their blue (i.e. fiction) livery, yet it’s hard to really see this as a novel. It’s more a fragmented collection of musings, disjointed; deliberately so, as is clear from the acknowledgements:
During the editing of the Italian version, Chiara Spaziani defended this book and its anomalies with all the bravery and confidence she has: I believe in open and shapeshifting texts that truly become themselves only through another voice and gaze. She was my first other voice and gaze. (p.293)
And that’s fair enough. However, whatever it is, a novel it ain’t, even if some of the events here are embellished, so if you’re looking for a narrative taking us from A to B, you might want to look elsewhere.
I’m still not convinced that Strangers I Know always holds together, but it’s interesting enough, with some excellent pieces in places. In some ways, it reads like writing as therapy. We have a woman looking back at her life so far, working out how she got to this point. Perhaps the point of all this looking to the past is the hope of understanding what comes next – but that’s a story for another day 😉