#RivetingReviews: Mandy Wight reviews THE UNBREAKABLE HEART OF OLIVA DENARO by Viola Ardone

“A girl is a jug: you break her, you take her.” This opening phrase tells us so much about this moving novel, set in rural Sicily in 1961 and based on real historical events. It’s the story of Oliva Denaro, a bright village girl, whose life and options are constrained by traditional values and expectations of women – expectations that their role is primarily domestic, and that their consent in sexual matters is of no importance. However, 1961 is a time when Italy is on the cusp of change, and supported by characters with more progressive ideas, the novel relates how Oliva challenges traditional expectations and stands up for her right to determine her own life. 

The novel starts with Oliva lamenting the fact she’s been born a girl. Her twin brother, Cosimino, is allowed to roam around as he likes. Though Oliva is allowed some freedoms as a child – to go to the market with her father, to go to school – she knows that when her period- the marquis-comes, the rules will be “keep your eyes down, toe the line and stay at home.” These rules are recited to her not just by her mother, in dark folk sayings, but by most other women in the community. Still, there are women in the community who think differently. Her teacher, Miss Rosario, hints that she has the power to control her own life. And her best friend at school, Liliana, the daughter of Mr. Caro, a communist, is a more modern teenager, an avid reader of film magazines, a keen amateur photographer, and a thoroughly bad influence as far as Oliva’s mother is concerned.

When Oliva starts her periods, her life does indeed change. As predicted, she’s not allowed out alone, and is only allowed to continue school on sufferance. It’s as if her life is now all about waiting to be married  off – and keeping herself and her reputation as ‘pure’ as possible to increase her eligibility. Things start to go wrong when the local baker’s son, Pino Paterno, offers her a segment of orange in the street. She takes it, careful not to smile, remembering her mother’s advice that a girl who smiles has already said yes, then chucks it back at him. In a dramatic scene at the Patron Saint Festival, he grabs her and forces her to dance with him. The whole village interprets his attentions as a courting ritual, but Oliva is quite sure she hasn’t encouraged him and doesn’t want to marry him. There’s a sense of her being corralled into the path of marriage by the expectations of others, feeling bewildered by what’s happening and out of control.

Paterno never actually does ask Oliva to marry him. Instead he kidnaps her, imprisons her in a secluded country location and, in a deeply harrowing scene, rapes her. This is the practice known as the fuitina, which at that time was not seen necessarily as a crime: if the couple subsequently got married the crime of rape was avoided, and any conviction annulled. After Oliva is rescued by her father and the carabinieri, she’s under tremendous pressure not to press charges against Paterno. However, she bravely decides to go ahead. There are serious consequences, not only for Oliva, in how she’s treated at the trial, but also for her family, who are severely punished by the community: their well is poisoned, their crops fail, and their livelihoods destroyed.

The final section of the book is set 20 years later, in 1981, and, narrated in alternate chapters by Oliva and her father, we gradually learn what happened to Oliva and her family in the intervening years. Oliva has become a primary school teacher and returned to her home village of Martorana. The female relationships we see are not those of the destructive gossips, but relationships of friendship and solidarity between Oliva and Maddalena, the lawyer’s assistant, and Liliana who has become an M.P. In this role Liliana has succeeded in getting those antiquated rape laws repealed, as in fact actually happened in Italy in 1981.

This is a powerful book about traditional expectations of women in Italy and Clarissa Botsford’s skilful translation of the phrases that repeat like leitmotifs through the novel—the girl as fragile as a jug, the phrase “having crickets in her head,” only serves to emphasise the ritualistic, traditional nature of these expectations. Yet despite theunspeakable trauma Oliva suffers, she doesn’t break. Her extraordinary courage in pressing charges against her rapist is one of the several things in this novel that will stay with me.

Reviewed by Mandy Wight

THE UNBREAKABLE HEART OF OLIVA DENARO

by Viola Ardone

translated by Clarissa Botsford

published by Harper Collins (2023)

March 2024 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Mandy Wight has published several translations from German on the No-Mans-Land Website, including excerpts from novels by Ursula Krechel, Nina Jäckle, Ulrike Edschmid, Natascha Wodin and Monika Helfer. In 2018 she was awarded the Goethe-Institut Award for New Translation for her translation of an extract from Juli Zeh’s novel Unterleuten. She writes on books in English and in translation at her blog Peakreads.

Read Mandy Wight’s #‎RivetingReview of KAIROS by Jenny Erpenbeck

Category: March 2024Reviews

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