Culture & Conversation

Nuanced understanding of “back home”

The Girls of Piazza d’Amore is nominated for the Concordia University First Book Prize. The award winner will be announced at the QWF Gala on November 19 at the Virgin Mobile Corona Theatre.

To read The Girls of Piazza d’Amore is to be transported heart and soul to a Calabrian village in 1950s Italy. Guzzo-McParland creates a warm, sensuous, detailed and compelling portrait of everyday life in Mulirena, which is nestled in the Appenine Mountains.

As I read on I delighted in taking the evening passeggiate with Lucia, Aurora and Tina, young women who were being courted in the square that stood between their three homes – hence Piazza d’Amore. The courtship consisted of the suitor at ground-level looking up at his beloved in her balcony, days on end of whispered exchanges and “making love with the eyes.” I went up the rustic path to the Funtanella with a clay water jug to collect water, ate fresh-made provolone cheese and handpicked figs and chestnuts, and enjoyed browsing through the wares at the fair to celebrate the feast of Santa Lucia.

The story is told by Caterina, an intelligent and sensitive girl in her early teens. We get to know her pragmatic mother, Teresa, and her generous stonemason father, Giuseppe: “He looked like a jolly ice-cream vendor who would give second scoops for free.” Giuseppe, who must work for extended periods in Milan to make a living, eventually emigrates to Montreal and sends for his family.

There is a large cast of characters – neighbours, farmers and businessmen, mothers, grandmas and all sorts of relatives, a teacher, the aforementioned three girls and their suitors. A gypsy girl makes a short appearance. Though the character introductions are good, a list would have helped. As the story unfolds, we come to see the complex socio-cultural dynamics – ties that bind deeply, and rivalries and biases that create bitter divisions.

This is no rose-tinted return to the author’s childhood, for Guzzo-McParland did grow up in a Calabrian village before coming to Montreal with her family. Rather, it is a clear-eyed account that lays bare the limitations of this rural existence, in particular highlighting the burden of tradition on the young village women. The book effectively sketches the larger, political forces that are driving multi-faceted changes in the village, most notably a mass migration to “America.”

“A decade after the fall of Facism, life in the village should have resumed its placid pre-war pattern. But the strong odour of DDT mixed with the urine-soaked diapers in the damp, whitewashed bedrooms of stone houses must have been nauseating and stifling for the returning soldiers who saw no reward in sight for their years of combat against the Germans… Mussolini’s… defeat must have dealt a heavy blow, not only to the regional economy but to the psyches of his men who had been pumped up with dreams of returning to the glory days of a mythical Roman empire.”

If Mulirena to Rome is quite a leap, one that definitively changes the young men who leave the village and move there, then Mulirena to Montreal is almost unimaginable. Yet hundreds of thousands made this journey. The “immigration story” is an important and inescapable theme in contemporary literature, certainly in Canada. The Girls of Piazza d’Amore is a welcome addition precisely because it gives us a nuanced understanding of “back home,” why people left and how they got here. What’s more, rural stories have been recounted less than urban ones. Weaving together the personal, communal and global, this makes for much more interesting reading than a sociological tract. The language used is simple, almost spare, a device to tell the story rather than embellish it. Yet, this is also a complex work where the first-person narrator, now an adult living in Montreal, looks back analytically at her hitherto, taken-for-granted childhood.

In terms of genre, the book seems to be somewhere between “a short novel” (as described on the cover) and a fictionalized memoir. Somehow we never quite “inhabit” Caterina as a child, even though the book is replete with telling incidents from her young life. Then there is Lucia, a potentially interesting character married off to an older man she never met. Described from the outside, the reader misses the opportunity for identification, which so makes a novel. Guzzo-McParland had originally written a tome of a book where this story continued in Canada. Montreal publisher Linda Leith asked her to focus on the Italian part, which has worked out at many, but not all levels. The Girls of Piazza d’Amore is best appreciated as a story about the collective not the individual.

Author of Bombay Wali and other stories, Veena Gokhale is a Montreal-based writer and communications consultant.

Photo of village in Appenine Mountains courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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