This is Sardinian Michela Murgia’s first novel and comes garlanded with prizes from Italy, where it was first published in 2009. It is a lyrical, leisurely-paced story, set largely in rural Sardinia of the 1950s and early 1960s. The mountain village of Soreni is a place so steeped in tradition and superstition that the mention of a character wearing jeans or the appearance of a television seems at odds with an otherwise timeless feel.
The central character, Maria Listru, is, at the age of six, adopted as a “soul child” by the elderly village seamstress, Bonnaria Urrai, a woman who is both respected and feared, for she is also the accabadora, who eases the passing of the dying or the terminally ill.
Maria is the only member of the close-knit community who remains unaware of her foster-mother’s calling, until the night Bonnaria breaks her own rule of only acting with familial consent. In the recriminations that follow, Maria leaves to seek work in Turin, its cold, regimented streets literally a world away from the ramshackle community of Soreni.
The narrative voice flits between characters and also takes on an omniscient viewpoint. This works in the context because this is just as much a novel about a community as individuals. The prose is precisely crafted, sometimes poetically beautiful, occasionally mannered and confused in meaning and metaphor.
It is at times frustrating and might seem to strive for style more than substance, but there is much in this novel that is humane, poetic and deeply moving.