Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Demons of Aquilonia

The Demons of Aquilonia by Lina Medaglia (Ihanna Publications, 2009) 258 pages

Lina Medaglia weaves a rich tapestry of tales from the old country and the new, crisscrossing from Toronto to the town of Aquilonia in Calabria to a farm in Zimpoli, detailing the intersecting lives of the Giganteschi and Rondinella families.

Licia Giganteschi is born in Calabria, Italy in the 1950s and emigrates at a young age to Canada. We travel back and forth in time from her past in Italy to the present as she is poised to return to Calabria for the first time and very many places in between.

It begins with the revelation of a curse that the young Licia Giganteschi is taunted with by a mean spirited schoolmate in her native Aquilonia. She asks her mother Grazia about it and so the story begins. In 1950, a bride named Natalia dies mysteriously on the night of her engagement, shot by an intruder or a jealous lover during carnevale ... With the young girl's death, a series of unfortunate occurrences begin - the result of the curse or just the family's misfortune? Medaglia tempts us with the first of many mysteries and intriguing situations.

Licia is a sweet and intelligent, if under-confident, child who becomes a young woman easily cowed by stronger and more vicious forces. Once in Canada she says, "I wore so many different masks, I became unrecognizable even to myself."

The book painfully captures the travails of a young immigrant growing up in Canada in the 1970s: bright, awkward and psychologically oppressed by unrelenting hostility towards foreigners at that time, Licia struggles to find her identity separate from her independent but sometimes volatile mother and a father demoralized by his struggles to find worthwhile work and dignity in Canada.

In Italy a treasure trove of characters are revealed:
Licia's eccentric communist grandfather secretly hordes a cache of books and useless Italian currency in the attic. He rails against priests and ignorance yet requests the comforts of religion upon his death. Who owns these books and why are they hidden?

Suor Assunta, the abandoned young bride, becomes a nun and lives in a cave; she is brought food by Licia's mother who may or may not know how she came to be this way.

The young Federico’s fatal opposition to a vicious boss who tries to force his men to take on a dangerous task, eventually comes to reside in a tiny Jewish cemetery in Aquilonia that is inhabited by only two departed souls.

Who is the mother of the newborn boy abandoned in the olive grove? How did he come to be there?

Maddalena faces an uncertain fate when her husband leaves for America and disappears. He is imprisoned due to a misunderstanding and does not return for many years. The penniless Maddalena feels compelled to become the mistress of a wealthier man and bears him a child, Alarico, who becomes Licia's best friend. For this Maddalena is scorned and abused until the husband miraculously returns. His response surprises both the villagers and the reader.

In Toronto, a cuckolded husband takes a megaphone to a mass to denounce the priest who has been sleeping with his wife (and tormenting poor Licia and other teenagers in the parish).

Licia, married too soon, combats an oppressive husband and degraded existence on an isolated farm surrounded by inhospitable and vicious relations.

Marco, Licia's father, struggles to maintain his dignity though of poor health and despairing of being able to support his growing family properly.

Her prose brings to mind the poignancy of both Nino Ricci's The Lives of the Saints and the Sicilian writer Maria Messina’s short stories in Behind Closed Doors: Her Father's House and Other Stories of Sicily.

literally has enough material to write two books with the wealth of rich detail and imagery she covers here. The compassionate rendering of the characters' fates, the sensual detail and her flare for creating dramatic situations linger in the mind and in the heart.

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