Viola Di Grado, 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool – TLS
“Metaphor is the lifeblood of fiction” Angela Carter once said, and in her late fiction, when she wrote more often about people who were at home in the world, she was fond of domesticating metaphors. In her first novel, Viola Di Grado’s shows a similar taste for the homely (“the river’s surface rippled and thickened like the skin that forms on milk when you warm it too much”), but it is Carter’s early novels about alienation in provincial bohemia that 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool most resembles. For Di Grado’s narrator, Camelia Mega, a young woman in Leeds on the verge of independence, the pull of home proves irresistible – even when it becomes unheimlich. After the death of her father and his lover in a car crash, Camelia’s mother, Livia, stops speaking, washing, and soon, even dressing. She wanders like a revenant through her run-down house, which rots with “dust and spiders and castles of mold, participating gleefully in her death, like Bluebeard’s secret room.”
Camelia returns to this home where, in an eternal winter, time seems to have stopped: my Year Zero, she thinks. However, this is not to be a tale of wiping the slate clean, for though she is the epitome of the modern heroine – economically independent, sexually free, technologically hip and multilingual – Camelia is somehow not equipped to create her own story. For all her contemporary wit (“It’s so ugly, Christopher Road is, that it qualifies as proof of God’s nonexistence”) she is confined in a nineteenth-century parody, still trapped with a madwoman in the attic and a mocking parrot who looks at the windows “not like a bird but like a woman in a Victorian novel”. Attempting to coax her mother out of the front door, Camelia buys her a camera. Livia responds by taking photographs of holes in the floor, in the curtains, in her underwear. What they signify Camelia can only surmise. The ditch her father died in? Her mother’s wish to die?
As in all good Gothic writing, Di Grado invests what is ostensibly straightforward with uncertainty. Is Camelia’s impatience also generational, a frustration with mothers who seem trapped by their biology? Perhaps. Yet she frets over her own lack of beauty and is horrified by Livia’s decline from a feminine ideal (once “radiant and untouchable like utopia”) to coarse animality (“my mother ate her scaloppini the way tigers eat in documentaries”). Conversation of a kind resumes with Camelia interpreting Livia’s looks: “Don’t use that tone of gaze with me!”. But her mother is now so decomposed a figure that she’s become “a landing pad for every kind of bug”, so these are dubious exchanges, full of ambiguity about who holds power. Soon the women are competitors in martyrdom as Camelia develops her own “verbal anorexia” and thinks about sleeping forever.
Di Grado has the proper anger of a young author – she was twenty-three when she penned this winner of the Campiello First Novel Prize – and her black comedy, pungent metaphors and controlled ambiguity announce the arrival of a considerable talent. Her self-consciousness is more than literary, however; it also reflects a quality now ingrained in the young, developed by Google, YouTube and all the other disseminating channels mentioned in 70% Acrylic, 30% Wool. Everyone narrates themselves, and Camelia, the child of Italian immigrants, a student of Chinese, living in an area full of ethnic takeaways and street kids pushing drugs, is peculiarly alert to language – its problems of translation and intelligibility. As a child, sensing in her parent’s marriage the affairs that threaten her world-view, she wonders – as only children and totalitarians do – why one story is not enough, and is horrified when her father insists “stories are everywhere”. In adulthood she remains vulnerable: “All it takes is a passerby’s glance and next thing you know you’re imprisoned in somebody else’s story”.
Having grown up in a place where the sun was never brighter than the “colour of a raw chicken thigh”, built with “an eye to saving money on materials and aesthetics”, Camelia cultivates her estrangement by hanging out in cemeteries, decapitating flowers, and re-watching the same Icelandic movie. She thinks, precociously, “I am the erotic dream of windows in a former working class town”. When she finds a pile of defective garments in a “dumpster” she takes to wearing them. (Except for such occasional Americanisms, which stand out in a novel set in Leeds, Michael Reynolds’ translation sounds note-perfect.) These strange clothes, like a bread trail in a fairy story, lead her to Wen, who Camelia takes lessons from, becoming fascinated by Chinese ideograms. Wen’s unwillingness to sleep with her results in a fraught affair with his brother. But despite his reserve it is Wen who opens up this traditional drama of confinement: through Camelia’s struggle to understand him and the different rules that govern Chinese, she may learn to see herself in a new light. The novel closes, however, with a Hitchcockian twist, Camelia mocking readers who hoped for a sentimental ending. Yet behind her narrator’s bravado Di Grado leaves a window open to further questions. The most interesting of these are whether the house of ‘women’s fiction’ has itself become a prison – and, if so, whether young writers have the will and imagination to break out of it.
This review appeared as ‘Doing Time’ in the TLS on 29.3.2013.