Today it’s twenty-five years since I killed my sister.
Nobody has ever said it out loud, but I can hear other people’s thoughts loud and clear. And the unmanageable ones have a special sound: they make a low constant rumble like waves crashing against docks, like high heels as you carry on walking, resisting and smiling.
My mother says it wasn’t my fault.
My mother wears them often, high heels that is.
The voice of Maria, the narrator of Erica Mou’s debut novel Thirsty Sea, sings with a heady mix of guilt, defiance and insecurity. Not always likeable, sometimes driven to over dramatic metaphor, she manages to maintain an irresistible, infectious flow that carries you right along with her, even if you may sometimes wonder how or why other the characters in her life put up with her at all. She’s a little injured perhaps, but you can’t help hoping she will find a way to start to heal. It makes for a strangely captivating read.
Thirsty Sea is the first offering of Héloïse Press, a new venture dedicated to publishing contemporary female narrative that launched in the UK earlier this year. Mou is an award winning Italian indie singer-songwriter who brings a free-spirited musical energy to her writing, a vitality that is captured with creativity by translator Clarissa Botsford. In her introductory note, Botsford describes the challenges inherent in translating the work of an author who delights in playing with double meanings. It was necessary at times to make changes and alterations, especially to the short poems that occur within and at the close of each chapter. These brief verses have a title that reflects back on the theme just covered and, as such, it was not always possible or desirable to translate directly from Italian to English. Fortunately she had an opportunity to meet and work with Mou herself and the author was more than open to the idea of “trans-creating.” As she said: “It’s my text. We can do with it what we like.”
All you needed to do was pick me up and shine a light
to see whether I’d ever been there
Maria, named after her two Maria grandmothers, is a thirty-two year-old woman living in Bari, Italy, with her extraordinarily patient partner Nicola. He is a pilot and she is the proprietor of a rather unlikely business, a gift-finding service—unlikely because she herself has never liked receiving gifts. This resistance, like most of the self-imposed roadblocks in her life and relationships, has its origins in the tragic death of her younger sister, Summer, when Maria was seven and her sister three. Despite frequent reassurances from her mother and several therapists, Maria cannot let go of a sense that she was somehow at fault, that everyone who knows of the situation sees her as a murderer. Her unyielding monologue continually turns comments, questions and recollections into varieties of self-accusation. Her sharp tongue is turned on herself and everyone else, though, for the most part, she manages to keep from expressing her harsher observations out loud.
Unfolding over the course of one twenty-four hour period, from one evening to the next, Maria gradually fills in details from her life, colouring in a self-portrait of a woman burdened by guilt, feeling crushed by her mother, alienated from her father and stifled by Nicola who wants to have a baby. She is weighed down by a block of marble she imagines carrying in her chest. Everything with Maria is intensified, technicolour, against the grey backdrop of her mother, her father’s crumbling edifice and Nicola’s pristine white palette. Almost the only person she trusts with the occasional honest expression of her feelings is Ruth, an American she met while visiting London in her youth. But what comes through loudest is the sense that Maria is truly isolated by her own inability trust herself. She cannot shake the trauma of her sister’s death no matter how unaffected she attempts to sound.
As the narrative unfolds and the pieces start to fall into place, tension builds. By this point we are attached to this wounded but entirely relatable soul as she nears a critical turning point. All we can do at that moment is trust that she will know what is right. For her. With Maria, Erica Mou has created a truly engaging, oddly eccentric character and a well-paced narrative that leaves one wondering where the future will take her. Definitely a writer to watch.
Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou is translated by Clarissa Botsford and published by Héloïse Press.