Viola Di Grado’s “70% Acrylic 30% Wool”

by Jess

Di Grado’s novella was the winner of the Campiello First Novel Prize and a finalist for Italy’s  most important literary award, the Strega. I read the Europa Editions copy translated by Michael Reynolds.

The story concerns two profoundly emotionally disturbed people: a young woman named Camelia Mega and her mother, Livia Mega, who was once a renowned flautist. They are Italians living in the city of Leeds in England, a city for which Camelia simply cannot overstate her hatred. “Leeds is like one of those sadistic pet owners that waves a piece of meat in front of his dog and then gobbles it down himself. You go out and you see that sun hanging from the sky and you feel happy. You think: Maybe the snow will end. You close your eyes hoping to feel warmth against your eyelids, but the sun has already disappeared, leaving the sky opaqued and off-white, the color of a raw chicken thigh.”

Gross, I know. We immediately become aware of Camelia’s troubled state, as well as her penchant for strange food metaphors (“The window opened onto a fake sun, a splatter of egg yolk on the sick white of the sky”). Just a few paragraphs in, after a long lament about the cold weather and the wretchedness of Christopher Road, we read: “But sometimes, despite everything, I find flowers underfoot as I make my way between the weeds, the thornbushes, and the slumbering snakes. There! A small stain of innocent baby blue resting in the scrub’s old-lady hands, a splash of beauty in that spin-dryer of misery and death. A provocation is what it is, and snip, like the fairy that nobody dares invite to the fairytale party I cut it off without mercy.”

Camelia had been studying Chinese, until her father died in a car accident with his lover three years earlier. The turn in the story takes place when she meets a young Chinese man named Wen who offers to begin teaching her Chinese again. She agrees, and for a trembling moment, we wonder if she will be able to open and move forward out of her stasis. We see:

You don’t have to search for beauty; the minute you let your guard down nature slaps you in the face with beauty. If you’re not careful, as you’re walking into the center of town you find yourself in the midst of an orgy of yellow flowers, and what choice do you have at that point but to destroy them? I murdered them one by one, I choked them inside my bag with a necrmancer’s pride.

“You’re going to die anyway,” I said to the terminal petunia that was expiring against my leg. “There’s a hole with your name on it, where dogs piss and people fuck, and everything dies, people and dogs, all together, even if they’ve tried to close the hole with concrete, and you fool, do you think your beauty is going to save you?

I turned around to see Wen’s white face looking at me. I put the flower down. The corolla was decimated, there wasn’t a single petal left. But it was still yellow, yellow like the sun.

Camelia’s flower-killing hobby, while ironic, gets a bit overplayed throughout the novel. For that matter, her narrative voice, which struck me as biting and distinct and funny at the beginning, doesn’t really change pitch at all and grows tiresome by the end. I think it would have been more sustainable in a short story length. There are a number of other repeated motifs, most of which occur in that excerpt above. Beauty, for instance, is all over the place: Livia’s faded beauty, death as antithesis of beauty, the offensive beauty of the flowers, Camelia’s rejection of beauty when she disfigures all her clothes.

Holes are another image we see repeated. Livia, who hasn’t spoken since her husband died, sits around the house taking photographs of holes. Any sort of hole. A hole in the ceiling, a wormhole in the table, a navel. And then you start seeing holes all over the novel. The husband died in ditch, discussion of a Chinese film called The Hole, discussion of an American film called The Hole, in Chinese “Confucious” and “hole” are the same word, Camelia does Italian translations for a washing machine company regarding the washing machine’s porthole, there’s a deep hole in a rock by the sea in Scarborough, and when Camelia begins having sex with Wen’s brother Jimmy, there’s all sorts of explicit talk of holes.

That’s actually where the story gets a bit out of hand for me. It becomes purposefully grotesque, splattered with blood and semen and vomit and more blood. And then, here’s a bit of a spoiler, but Camelia chooses the path of least resistance. Instead of fully opening, she finds she can’t handle the new reality presented to her, and she slams shut. She ends the novel in much the same state as she began it, though she’s darker now, she’s hardened and not only depressive but malicious.

I can see why 70% Acrylic 30% Wool is a prize winner. It certainly shows signs of having been well thought out and crafted, and it keeps you engaged and guessing at what’s going to come next. I read it in two days. But when you put it down, it feels much heavier than its trim 200 pages should be. It’s not one that will get out of my head any time soon, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.