Accabadora by Michela Murgia
Formerly beautiful and at one time betrothed to a fallen soldier, Bonaria Urrai has long held covenant with the dead. Midwife to the dying, easing their suffering and sometimes ending it, she is revered and feared in equal measure as the village’s Accabadora. When Bonaria adopts Maria, the unloved fourth child of a widow, she tries to shield the girl from the truth about her role as an angel of mercy. Moved by the pleas of a young man crippled in an accident, she breaks her golden rule of familial consent, and in the recriminations that follow, Maria rejects her and flees Sardinia for Turin. Adrift in the big city, Maria strives as ever to find love and acceptance, but her efforts are overshadowed by the creeping knowledge of a debt unpaid, of a duty and destiny that must one day be hers.
Accabadora is Michela Murgia’s English-language debut (having been translated by Silvester Mazzarella), and it has already won seven major literary prizes, including Italy’s prestigious Premio Campiello. With such a wonderful title, and such high literary acclaim how could you not want to give this little 192-page novel a go?
Set in rural Sardinia during the 1950s, this novel follows Bonaria Urrai, known as an accabadora, a mid-wife to the dying. Bonaria believes that those who are suffering on their deathbeds need someone to help them leave this world and go on to the next, the same way one helps someone deliver a baby when it is being born. The people of her village come to rely on her when a death in the family is imminent, though little is ever spoken of such things. Bonaria is a lonely widow with no family or children of her own. She decides to adopt Maria, otherwise known as a soul-child; someone who has been born twice by being brought into the world by one mother, and then brought up by another. Maria comes to love Bonaria as her own flesh and blood and the two form a special bond that will become the very fabric of the entire novel. Maria has no idea of Bonaria’s work as an accabadora, until one day when news of a local village boy’s death reaches her, and the brother of the deceased claims he saw Bonaria smother his brother’s face with a pillow. Once Maria discovers the truth about the woman she has come to look upon as her mother, it is all far too much for her and she chooses to flee to Turin to become a nanny. But as we all know, no one can run from their life. Maria is forced to return tocSardinia where she learns some hard truths, the kind that only life can teach you. These truths make Maria question whether or not she can really understand why Bonaria does what she does. Is there ever a good enough reason to end someone’s life? Is it better for them to die naturally or to be helped along and have the pain taken away?
For such a short novel, you can see that it raises some really important and rather heavy questions that are relevant even today let alone in 1950sSardinia. Euthanasia is still a really controversial subject, and one that politicians and doctors will be arguing for and against for many years to come. It makes you question everything you believe and the real meaning of life and death, and whether we should be allowed the right to decide to if we should live or die.
Murgia’s writing is lyrical and beautiful throughout, with some really lovely descriptions of Sardinia as a place to live. Her characters are incredibly well thought-out, though at times the foreign names become a little confusing! I particularly loved the character of Nicola, a young boy who was the heir to his father’s farm, only to have lost a leg after being shot. Nicola is feisty and arrogant, but village life in Sardinia required that of him in the 1950s. He needed to be tough and confident to take on the responsibility of his father and the farm. So when he loses a leg, he no longer sees the point in living. All Nicola wants is to die peacefully, so that he is no longer a burden to those around him. He knows that no woman will want him for a husband as he can no longer provide for anyone. The worst thing is that even his family know this to be true, however hard it is for them to admit. There are some incredibly moving and sad moments throughout all this, and Nicola almost became the highlight of the whole novel for me. You want these characters to make an emotional connection with you as a reader, and for me Nicola did that and more.
The ending is also very moving. When Maria is forced to confront what it really means to help someone to die, and what it takes for you to reach that point of doing it willingly, it is dealt with in such a delicate way it almost creeps up on you. I felt my eyes fill with a couple of small tears as I watched Maria understand what it means to be accabadora. An accabadora doesn’t just end someone’s life; they unburden their soul so that they are free to leave this world. Any religious icons, or objects of special meaning to the dying person must be removed from the room, and any guilt or sorrow addressed, so that they can sever their ties to this world and be relieved once and for all. Isn’t that the way we would all like to die? To feel as though everything has been dealt with and nothing has been left unfinished.
I’d definitely recommend this novel to anyone looking for something a little bit different. I’ve never read anything like it before and I doubt I will again. Just saying the word ‘accabadora’ to myself, and feeling it roll over my tongue makes me want to read it all over again. How can you resist such a word?
Accabadora is out now, published by MacLehose Press, imprint of Quercus. Thanks goes to the publisher for sending me a copy for review.