My Mother is a River
By Donatella Di Pietrantonio
Translated by Franca Scurti Simpson
Tolstoy once said that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but he was wrong. My Mother is a River is the story of a love between mother and daughter. However, it is a love that has “gone wrong from the start”. There are many people who, reading this book, will recognise the pain of loving and hating those closest to us; our parents and our children. The narrator of the book has become a carer for her mother, Esperina. The book is almost painfully honest about the ambiguity of her feelings. Never feeling secure in her mother’s love, her daughter must now care for her parent. The resentment and frustration of being a carer is conveyed in a narrative voice that is utterly compelling and convincing:
Some days I hate her. Like now, driving to her. I hate the time she costs
me. When I leave her I am empty, exhausted, my mind blank. I open the
car window even though it’s cold, to dispel the foulness that overcomes
I am incapable of showing her kindness. I never touch her. I can only
imagine being able to caress her, her arms, the hands deformed by
arthritis, her cheeks, her head. Her hair’s started to thin out too, as if the
withering at work inside her skull were infecting its very roots. It’s like
cancer in reverse, it shrivels instead of spreading out. She seems too
young for this, she isn’t ready. We are not ready.
We learn early on about the abuse within the family, which might perhaps explain Esperina’s emotional estrangement from her daughter. Yet the novel is much more than an account of how we hurt those we love, or the agony of caring. The rural community in Abruzzo, where the book is set, initially lacks sanitation and electricity. An agricultural life, which was probably relatively unchanged since the middle ages, is beautifully evoked. Esperina’s father, Fioravante, had “A solid body, made for working the land, or perhaps the land had shaped him so because he had toiled on it since he was a child.” Her daughter reimagines her mother’s rural childhood almost enraptured by the past of a parent who is now emotionally absent:
The first thing to turn your life around was school. It was far, in Colledara,
one hour’s walk along a solitary path, which widened a little before the
first houses. As well as your satchel, you carried a clean pair of shoes to
change into when you got to the village. You’d leave the muddy ones
behind a bush to wait for your return. You walked through the dew-moist
dawn. In the shaded areas around ditches and under trees the watery film
would outline otherwise invisible spider webs, stretched among the ferns.
You didn’t feel the weight of a butterfly that would for an instant conceal
itself on your hair. Where the ground was soft, you’d hop from one stone
to the next.
I have quoted this passage because it illustrates the beauty and economy of the writing. Di Pietrano has a telling eye for the little detail that evokes the world of her characters. The butterfly that the daughter visualises captures perfectly her inability to touch her own parent emotionally.
One subject that literature tends often to shy away from is our physicality. This book is as honest about our bodies as it is about the emotional ambivalence of so many parent-child relationships. Indeed, it is hard at times to believe that My Mother is a River is a work of fiction. The writing is redolent of life. In one passage the narrator describes trying to care physically for her partner’s mother:
I’ve tried with my partner’s mother, fifteen years older and infirm. I bathed
her. While we were helping her into the bath, she defecated on its edge. I
cleaned up. I soaped her skin, lifting her flaccid breasts to wash the skin
folds, where the skin rots and reddens with sweat. Several times, when
wiping her anus, the sponge came away foul smelling and streaked with
shit. After washing her frizzy, stringy hair, I applied conditioner and then
untangled it with a wide-tooth comb. Every now and then she’d slide into
the water and I’d pull her up by her armpits. I rinsed her, then Pietro and I
got her out of the bath and helped her onto a chair. I rubbed moisturiser
on her legs and arms, always so dry. A rivulet of gratitude dribbled from
I could write so much more about this book. Every reader has their own version of a novel and for me the account of an ambivalent love and dementia are what will stay with me. Yet the book is far more than this would suggest. Di Pietrantonio has created an array of utterly convincing characters and a rural community largely untouched by the industrial revolution. She has a photographer’s eye for detail. Franca Scurti Simpson’s translation reads like a novel written by a major English writer. The closing pages of the book are extraordinary and left me feeling as though what had gone before had in some way been resolved. My Mother is a River is a book that lets you live the lives of others and see your own anew. In spite of its unflinching depiction of the emotional ambivalence of the narrator’s relationship with Esperina, the book is an affirmation of love.
Donatella Di Pietrantonio
Franca Scurti Simpson
4 November 2015
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