A GIRL RETURNED

Book Cover

In this slim novel by award-winning Italian author Di
Pietrantonio, her first translated into English, a 13-year-old girl raised by distant
relatives as their own is sent abruptly back to her birth family with little
explanation.

The book opens with the unnamed narrator carrying a suitcase and
a bag of shoes up the stairs to an apartment where the door is stuck closed. At
last a child with untidy hair opens it. “She was my sister, but I had
never seen her.” The man she has until now believed to be her father is dropping
her off. In the dining room, her birth mother receives her without ceremony or
interest, not bothering to get up from her chair. When the girl runs back down
to the car, desperate to convince her erstwhile father to take her back (“Mamma’s
sick, she needs my help. I’m not staying here, I don’t know those people”),
he removes her bodily from the front seat and drives away. “The tire marks
and I remained on the asphalt….The air smelled of burning rubber. When I
raised my head, someone from the family that was mine against my will was
looking down from the second-floor windows.” Raised an only child in a comfortable, middle-class
home, accustomed to days at the beach and dance lessons, she finds herself in
an apartment crowded with violent strangers. There’s not enough to eat, and no
bed has been arranged for her. She sleeps on a mattress stuffed with sheep’s
wool, holding the sole of her sister’s foot against her cheek: “I had
nothing else, in that darkness inhabited by breath.” In spare, haunting
prose, Di Pietrantonio shows a girl struggling not only to understand, but to
survive and belong. “You haven’t known poverty,” her birth mother
tells her, “poverty is more than hunger.” Class inequality, misogyny,
and sexism are all at work as well. Late in the novel, in a scene both
harrowing and illuminating, her two worlds overlap when she and her sister
visit the house of the woman who raised her.

A gripping, deeply moving coming-of-age novel; immensely
readable, beautifully written, and highly recommended.

kirkusreviews.com

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