Translated by Clarissa Botsford
Review by Annabel
This novella, first published in Italian in 2020, has a mere 120 pages, yet there is a full life between its covers. On the face of it, the story is very simple, but there are complications!
Nives is recently widowed losing her husband of fifty years, Anteo to a stroke. He fell down dead while out feeding the pigs, and by the time she got to him one of the pigs had started chewing his face. Living in the Tuscan countryside, with no close neighbours, Nives begins to get lonely. Their daughter Laura, who now lives in France, would have her move, but she’s fine where she is, she just needs company.
In steps Giacomina – a hen, and Nives’ favourite of their chickens, because she has a twisted foot. She brings Giacomina into the house as a pet and the two get along marvellously.
There were few critical moments. Foremost was when she surprised herself with this realization: she had replaced Anteo with a crippled old hen. What made that weird was the following: with Giacomina by her side, there was nothing about her husband that she missed. She was assailed by a sense of despondency that she didn’t know what to do with, telling herself, “I gave my life to a man I’ve been able to replace with a chicken.” It made her feel dirty. But also wasted.
Until, one day, Nives finds the hen in a catatonic state, unblinking – she’d been hypnotised by the washing machine. It’s late in the evening, but she rings the old vet, Loriano Bottei, for advice. Loriano is an old acquaintance and their long phone call into the night forms most of the rest of the story.
Understandably, Loriano is initially exasperated at having been rung late in the evening and there’s nothing he can do for the hen, although Nives insists that he come out to see Giacomina the next day.
But she’s not done. Nives wants to talk. As Loriano’s wife, Donatella, is now snoring in bed and he won’t get to sleep, he stays on the line and Nives starts to reminisce about when they were young. It soon becomes clear that there is history between them and there are many unresolved things in the pair’s relationship; Nives has a big secret too. However, until she’s ready to give that up, Nives pokes fun at Loriano, and makes some insinuations about his wife’s purity in her youth too.
I so enjoyed their bickering. Loriano’s increasing exasperation, grudging acceptance, which about turns to surprise and more exasperation as his younger manhood is prodded and critiqued, and some of the illusions he has lived with all these years are shattered is classic. Nives, who could be seen as the woman scorned who never understood why, has an underlying bitterness after what happened to her and why she settled for Anteo. I just have this image of Loriano sitting there hanging on the telephone, desperately wanting to get his head down, but not being able to shut down the conversation, as Nives throws her all down the line.
Clarissa Botsford’s translation is perfectly pitched, capturing the characters of these two ageing and world-weary adults who are taken back to their youth before they took their lives for granted.
Ultimately, this novella has a good heart, the ending is completely right and satisfying, but it also has that bite, which was unexpected at the start. I was entranced, nay, hypnotised by Nives putting the world to rights, finally claiming her place in that male-dominated society. A single-sitting read that I can wholly recommend.
Annabel is co-founder of Shiny and one of its editors.
Sacha Naspini, Tell Me About It, (Europa Editions, 2022). 978-1787703803, 128pp., flapped paperback original.
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