Sworn Virgin by Elvira Dones

Reviewed by Susan Osborne

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Reading fiction in translation offers us a glimpse into different worlds, cultures that we can never experience ourselves no matter how sophisticated modern travel has become. That’s exactly what Elvira Dones’s Sworn Virgin does, taking us to the mountains of Northern Albania where the clan system is deeply embedded, blood feuds confine families to their houses for decades and, according to traditional law, a woman can become a ‘sworn virgin’, taking the name, dress and persona of a man, providing there are no males of her generation in the family, an honourable choice for a woman left alone in this strictly segregated society. This is what Hana decides to do. Aged nineteen, reluctant to accept an arranged marriage and easy prey for sexual predators, she becomes Mark and remains so until her cousin Lila invites her to join her family in America.

Dones’s intriguing novel opens with Mark sitting on a plane next to Patrick O’Connor. They’ve got to know each other a little over the ten-hour flight and as they make their way to passport control Patrick hands Mark his card then forges ahead leaving Mark to face his first act as a woman for fourteen years, handing over the passport that identifies him as Hana. Welcomed into the warmth of her cousin’s family, Hana feels nervous, unconfident yet anxiously eager to embrace the outside world. Lila and her daughter Jonida are both desperate for Hana to throw aside Mark and create her new identity, plunging into the world of make-up, dresses and facials. Understandably, Hana is reluctant: she must unravel the supreme act of will it took to create Mark, let alone accustom herself to a freedom and culture radically different from life in her tiny mountain village. Even the smallest thing like buying a dictionary is challenging. Slowly, at her own pace, with loving encouragement and cajoling from Lila and Jonida, Hana finds herself a job, an apartment and a car. Her next task is to rid herself of her troublesome virginity.

It’s a fascinating premise for a novel and Dones handles it beautifully. Flashbacks to Hana’s life studying in Tirana where she makes friends and finds someone she thinks may become a lover, and her life as a man in her gender-segregated village, are inter-spliced with her new life, struggling to find an identity which will fit her and coming out from underneath Lila’s sometimes suffocating warmth. The relationship between Hana, orphaned when she was ten, her beloved aunt and her uncle, dying from cancer and anxious for her future, are touchingly portrayed. As Hana becomes closer to Jonida the missed chance of motherhood is poignantly clear. Hana’s struggles to rid herself of her virginity are both touching and humorous. Her story is told in simple, direct language making the confusion of her identity all the more effective. In other less-skilled hands this is a story that could have fallen flat on its face but Dones – and her translator Clarissa Botsford – deftly avoid prurient sensationalism. The final sentence makes you want to jump up and cheer.

As I was reading Sworn Virgin I was reminded of Jeffery Eugenides Middlesex in which the sexually confused Calliope, brought up as a longed-for daughter, discovers that she’s hermaphrodite and must choose whether to be a man or a woman. Painted on a larger canvas than Dones’s novel, Middlesex explores a multitude of themes, from race, war and religion to love, sexuality and gender, set against a backdrop which encompasses the Second World War, the Detroit race riots and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the book’s publisher, And Other Stories. They’re a not-for-profit organisation who publish books funded by subscriptions from the likes of you and me, readers keen to support new writing and happy to pay an annual subscription for two, four or six of their books – publisher crowd sourcing, if you will. Their books are beautifully produced paperbacks complete with notes and an introduction – Sworn Virgin was prefaced by the briefest of brief forewords but it was by Ismail Kadare, Albania’s foremost novelist. This is the second of their books I’ve read – the first was Ivan Vladislavić’s Double Negative, set in South Africa – and both have been excellent.

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Elvira Dones (translator Clarissa Botsford), Sworn Virgin, (And Other Stories: London, 2014) 9781908276346, 270 pp., paperback

From Susan Osborne A Life in Books (www.alifeinbooks.co.uk). Never, ever leave home without a book.

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