Portrait of a Family with a Fat Daughter

Written by Judith Landry (trans.) Margherita Giacobino
Review by Jasmina Svenne

This is the story of a matriarchal Italian family (or arguably two such families that merge into one), from the late 19th century through to the 1950s and ´60s. Ninin (Caterina) is born near Turin into an impoverished peasant family in which sons are prized far above daughters, and domineering grandparents keep both younger generations firmly under their thumb. But Ninin is determined to make something of herself through education and work at a local textile factory. She not only helps raise her younger sisters, but becomes a mainstay to her niece and great-niece through times of war and economic crisis, illness, bereavement, broken marriages and financial burdens.

I’m not entirely sure why this book is being marketed as fiction, since it doesn’t read like a novel, or even as an interconnecting sequence of short stories. By the author’s own admission, it is a lightly fictionalised family history/memoir, bringing back to life much-repeated family stories and reconstructing episodes about which little is known, like the author’s feckless father’s life in a series of German labour camps during the latter part of WWII. But the narrator’s voice is ever-present and the book as a whole has the formlessness and episodic feel of real life.

That is not to say the book isn’t well written and a fascinating read. I learned a great deal about aspects of Italian social history through the eyes of this one family. The translation is clever too, trying to keep a flavour of Piedmontese dialect while making sure English-speaking readers are not alienated by the use of too many foreign words. The characters are all vividly portrayed, from Ninin’s drunken and predatory grandfather, to the various aunts, and down to happy-go-lucky dog Pucci. Recommended for anyone interested in an unusual view of 20th century history.