Title: Hollow Heart
Author: Viola Di Grado
Translator: Antony Shugaar / Italian
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 271 1
“I’m not afraid of death because I don’t believe in it.
It’s just getting out of one car, and into another.”
― John Lennon
“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”
― Edgar Allan Poe
“When you look into the abyss, it’s not supposed to wave back.”
― Terry Pratchett
Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011) is the unlikely heroine of the Italian novel, Hollow Heart, released in English this past August by the increasingly chic publisher Europa Editions. Unlikely because she’s already dead when the book (which functions as a sort of memoir of the afterlife) starts, having employed the perennial method of opening her wrists in a warm bath. To female suicide what the double axel is to female figure skaters, the way she kills herself grounds by its very ubiquity what proves to be a mesmerizing and wholly original literary work about a young woman navigating death. And doing so with more dexterity than she ever showed in life. Probably not a coincidence. The very things which she loses – the emotional and physical connections which define our humanity – are the things which caused her so much pain while alive. Death, if nothing else, grants objectivity.
The bad news about the afterlife is that it’s rather bleak. Viola Di Grado paints a black landscape where the dead exist as shadows, isolated from those they love, lonely, unable to experience the pleasures they took for granted while alive. Of course, Dorotea’s existence (as we come to understand it) was rather bleak prior to her suicide. At least now she has some friends and perspective. She keeps a journal recording the decomposition of her body, which she visits frequently and lovingly. She continues to live with her mother and aunt – observing their grief, comforting and tormenting them as the whim strikes her. She goes to an Amy Winehouse concert (after the singer’s death, of course) with another suicide named Euridice. She seeks out other ghosts, leaving touchingly wistful messages for recently deceased acquaintances.
Hi, I’m Dorotea Giglio (1986-2011). We did theater together in middle school. I was the one who was three years older than you, I had dark hair and freckles, you remember? I’m the one who that time we went to Milan to see the show about Pirandello, on the bus, told you about when my cousin’s duckling almost drowned after it got tangled up in a piece of twine and the other duckling saved it by peeping really loud. You said it was a crazy story. Do you remember that? I know we didn’t talk much for the rest of the trip. And I know that we haven’t been in touch in the fourteen years since. But I heard that you died of leukemia, and since I was in your neighborhood, having died myself just last year, I though that maybe we could get together…
I got your number from a girl who died of an overdose and used to do aerobics with you. I stopped by the hospital room where you stopped living, but you weren’t there. I thought you might be in the morgue, hanging ribbons and necklaces on you frozen body, but you weren’t there either. Nor at the cemetery; that’s where I spend a lot of my time these days. Would you call me at this number? I really hope to hear from you. Ciao, kisses.
Much of Hollow Heart is about Dorotea coming to terms with the life she gave up. The prose is beautiful – moving from the lyrical to the biological – sentences defiantly bright in the face of such a dark subject. “Down there my body feels no regrets: the regrets have stayed with me, and I have to fight them off on my own. My regrets shrill, they whine, they throw tantrums, they keep me from sleeping. They disobey me. They grow. My body has enxymes instead of regrets. They emerged from the lacerated lysosomes and set about destroying their own tissues. And so every one of my cells crumbled itself from within, alone, in silence.” Life and viscera saturate page after page as Dorotea describes the insects who eat her flesh and then, moments later, is caught up in a memory of a plane ride she took while alive: “The clouds outside the airplane window looked like a motionless sea. A slab of dark waves, caught by surprise in the middle of a storm. Breakers suspended in that enchanted instant right before they crash down on the shore. You could see the entire arch of their bodies, the hook-shaped curve, soon thrust into the earth. A huge hand lifted to grab, as if full of yearning.” Di Grado’s writing is so lovely at times it makes you ache.
I’ve included more than the usual number of excerpts because the writing, as well as the originality of thought behind the character, are what make Hollow Heart worth reading – and, in fact, readable. Violet Di Grado appears to have done her research, acknowledging the hereditary component of suicide. She does not hesitate to make her readers uncomfortable or sad. But in Dorotea she’s given us a character whose charm is only revealed after she sheds her depression with her corporeal form. Once that happens an inquisitive, sweet, admittedly quirky young woman emerges. You can’t help cheering her on, if only because she is so hopeful in a place where we’ve been told all hope should be abandoned. Somehow managing to embrace the afterlife as she was never able to embrace the life that came before.