Thursday 15 August 2013

'70% Acrylic 30% Wool' by Viola Di Grado (Review)

Today's post is on another gem from Europa Editions that I missed out on the first time around, but it's a book that was well worth waiting for.  The writing is strange, and subtly disorientating, but the setting is very, very familiar...

Viola Di Grado's 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (translated by Michael Reynolds, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a wonderfully bizarre novel, one set in the English city of Leeds.  From the very start, the city plays a starring role in the story, mostly as a dark, depressing place, a town where it's always December and daylight is just a distant cultural memory.

Of course, we're not meant to take this literally (I think...) - this view of the city is an outward projection of the mental state of the main character, Camelia Mega.  Born in Italy and brought to Leeds at the age of seven, she is struggling to cope with the loss of her father (caught in flagrante with a lover - in a car crash) and her mother's retreat into an inner-world, one of denial and wordlessness.

Camelia seems set to follow her mother down the spiral when a chance encounter on the street with a young Chinese man, Wen, provides the impetus she needs to start living again.  In fact, Leeds even manages to get past December (eventually...).  A love story with a happy ending then?  You obviously don't know Viola Di Grado...

70% Acrylic 30% Wool is a fantastic book, a novel which defies simple clichéd explanations.  It gets its power from Di Grado's manipulation of language and the way in which she makes the ordinary bizarre, constantly leaving the reader grasping at thin air.  For me, this was a more personal reading than for most because I lived in Leeds for a few years, very close to the places Camelia describes; however, the Leeds of the novel is less that of my student years and more one of some post-apocalyptic nightmare.  As any self-respecting southerner will tell you, it's grim up north:
"It must have been seven in the morning but it was dark outside, like at any self-respecting hour of the day in Leeds.  They discriminate against daylight hours here, ghettoizing them behind curtains."
p.19 (Europa Editions, 2013)
I don't think the city's tourist board will be hiring Di Grado as an ambassador any time soon...

Things start to get better though, when Camelia meets Wen, the manager of a clothes shop, and starts taking private Chinese lessons (let's ignore the fact that they met after he recognised her clothes as something he'd thrown out in the rubbish...).  Camelia had been planning to study Chinese at university before her father's death, and she soon gets swept up both with her studies, and her growing passion for the young teacher.  However, when Wen (no pun intended) fails to respond adequately to her advances, things start to get very messy.  Occasionally literally.

As you might imagine from the mixed linguistic background of the story, languages and words (or the absence thereof) play a major role in the novel.  Camelia becomes obsessed with Chinese characters, painting them on pieces of paper, plastering them across the walls of her home and tracing them manically onto her arms and legs while watching television.  Everything she sees is decoded in the form of the radicals of the characters, transformed from real objects into inky-black depictions.

Her journey into language contrasts with her mother's retreat into silence (the silence, at times, threatening to infect Camelia, forcing her to vomit up words...).  Having said that, languages do not necessarily require verbalisation, and mother and daughter somehow communicate very well with glances.  And, of course, there's always music:
"She stood up there, so red at the top of the steep narrow stairs, stairs rotten with dust, like an upside-down Tower of Babel that instead of multiplying languages had destroyed them all.  And all this, the elision of all languages, just to get to this moment, to her standing there mute and breathtaking as she always was after playing her favorite piece." (p.157)
Camelia, though, most definitely prefers words - and action...

I still don't think I've managed to quite get the idea of the novel across adequately - this book is ever so slightly twisted (in a good way, of course).  As well as the above, there'll be blood, sex, betrayal, mutilation of defenceless clothes and flowers, and symbolic references to holes.  And Leeds.  Lots of walking about the centre and student areas of Leeds.

Which brings me to the only bad thing I have to say about 70% Acrylic 30% Wool...  Michael Reynold's translation is a good one, a very good one in fact, but it's written in American English, and for me that detracted from the finished article a little.  I was just too close to the setting of the book to be able to gloss over some of the vocabulary choices, even if the style of the language isn't noticeably American.  The place I used to go and buy crisps at late at night is not a 'gas station'; the thing I used to walk on to uni most days (OK, some days) is not a 'sidewalk'; wherever Camelia found the clothes, I'm pretty certain it wasn't a 'dumpster'; oh, and while Leeds can be pretty bleak at times, it's definitely not 'gray'...

Rant over :)  This is a great book, and I really hope that more of Wunderkind Di Grado's work is available in English soon (my Italian ain't all it could be).  It's not always easy to get your head around, and understanding Camelia's actions can be a nightmare at times, but you should definitely take 70% Acrylic 30% Wool for a spin.  Definitely not one for delicates though ;)