Her Father's House
and Other Stories of Sicily
By Maria Messina
Feminist Press. 196 pp. $19.95
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Reviewed by Elizabeth Fox
We lose things all the time - keys, glasses, pens. Some of them seem unimportant (pens), while some of them seem essential (keys and glasses), but their loss is nothing compared to that of Maria Messina's exceptional
Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily
. In this, the first collection of Messina's work to be translated into English, the practically forgotten Sicilian author delivers moving tales of quiet desperation, and simultaneously reveals the unfairness of a world that could neglect her work for so long.
That the stories of a female Sicilian writer of the early 20th century were lost is actually not surprising. Though Messina's work was critically acclaimed and her mentor was the well-known Italian author Giovanni Verga, contemporary Sicilian culture and ideas of femininity made authorial success an uphill battle and allowed for a quick fall into obscurity.
That same culture and those ideas of femininity, however, provided Messina with the material for all the stories in this collection, stories about the lives of contemporary Sicilian women of the middle and lower classes. Brief and simple, the individual tales tell of women trapped by society inside loveless marriages, abusive relationships, impoverished spinsterhood, and even inside the home itself. In spare, direct, and heart-wrenching prose, Messina paints small, dark portraits of loneliness and despair.
She shows us women like Catena, deformed and missing her husband; Vanni, forced to marry someone else in the absence of her true love; Liboria, growing old alone because of her father's mistakes; and Vanna, who has left a loveless marriage only to find that her family refuses to support her decision.
Though they are largely restricted to the domestic sphere, Messina's stories include more than just moments in the lives of her fictional women. They depict the broader Sicilian culture of the early 20th century, in which poverty and social restrictions abound, respectability is everything, and there is a constant exodus of young men who leave their wives and mothers to seek their fortunes in America.
The brilliant translator Elise Magistro includes an able introduction and afterword that only enrich our understanding of this society (which is surprising, since in most works, these addenda often ruin a book with extraneous or preemptive information).
And yet, while Messina's stories derive power by providing a window into another time and another culture, their emotion still rings true today. When the mute Ciancianedda realizes that "not beauty, not money, nothing linked two creatures together like the power of the spoken word," we feel her misery. When Catena, unable to travel to America with her husband, watches "the lithe figure of her [cruel] stepsister, the curvaceous body, tiny waist and full bust" board the ship after him, we understand her jealousy and desperation. It speaks to the essential, unchangeable parts of human nature, that despite differences in time, place, language, and culture, we understand the emotions of Messina's characters, simultaneously victims and heroines.
It is this gift of Messina's for conveying time, place, and emotion so honestly and in such impossibly brief portraits that makes even the temporary loss of her work incredible. With each new reader, however, Messina's words will leave their mark. Their power makes them impossible to forget.