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‘We look for the wrong things in the right places’ [book review]

Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou, translated by Clarissa Botsford

‘I get lost all the time / But I always know which way / the sea lies’. So reads one of the miniature poems scattered throughout the pages of Thirsty Sea, the restless, visceral and compulsively playful debut novel by Erica Mou. The Italian singer-songwriter’s foray into fiction is also a first for her publisher, Héloïse Press, a new Canterbury-based indie set up to focus on women in translation. Leading a list of four titles slated for publication in 2022, Thirsty Sea, in Clarissa Botsford’s superb translation, is a highly inventive and deeply compelling work that concerns itself with big contemporary issues yet never loses sight of the pleasure to be found in simply reading quality literature.

Cover image Thirsty Sea

The poem quoted above, whose title is ‘Beeline’, is typical of the fragmentary lines that conclude each section of Mou’s novel – written, we assume, by her narrator, Maria, who is obsessed with the many layers of meaning inherent in compound words. Though they may at first seem dashed off – even their placement in the text, aligned right, makes them appear more like margin notes – we soon begin to sense an uncanny echo not only between the poems and their titles, but between each verse and the section we have just finished. Oblique and fleeting, almost felt rather than read, they are just one part of Mou’s intense linguistic creativity and the way this novel seems to shift beneath our feet, elliptical and rhythmic, straining at its boundaries only to return to where it began. The sea, you could say, made of paper and ink.

Maria, who more than deserves the plaudit of being one of the most engaging narrators I’ve encountered this year, is in her early thirties and living a fairly conventional life: after a brief, slightly hedonistic year in London as a younger woman, she returned to her hometown of Bari, where she now lives with her boyfriend, Nicola, and runs the highly creative ‘Be Present!’, a bespoke gift-buying service. Ruth, her best friend, whom she met during that year in London, lives in America; they communicate mainly by post and have a complex relationship shot through with jealousy and forgiveness. The events of the novel proper are condensed into the space of one day – its four roughly equal sections titled ‘Dinner’, ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’ and ‘Teatime’; just one of many ironies on the part of Mou, given that Maria barely eats – but its scope is much wider, encompassing as it does our narrator’s past and possible future, and providing an expansive canvas for her wide-roaming thoughts.

Though not quite a stream-of-consciousness novel, Thirsty Sea seeks to reflect the jumbled interior of a human mind in its loose, often looping structure: while on the face of it Maria is recounting the course of one decisive day, the narrative is constantly interrupted by thoughts that come out of left field and ironic observations that may or may not have to do with the present she is currently living. Maria is in many ways frustrating – the kind of self-sabotaging narrator who any well-meaning reader wants to seize by the shoulders and shake – but she is also bright, witty, empathetic and insightful, making her a voice I could happily have stayed with for hours. Bored in her relationship, fearful of the future and haunted by a past she seems powerless to escape, she is flawed to just the right degree, consistent in her quirks and pleasingly relatable.

While much of the novel revolves around Maria’s relationship with Nicola – seven years old, it has survived infidelity and the shattering death of Nicola’s father, but looks set to founder on at least one of two questions: will they get married, and will they have a baby. Nicola, a man Maria regards with a degree of contempt for his niceness, is desperate for both, but Maria’s uncertainty swells throughout the novel; unable to leave the relationship entirely (‘Force of habit / is my force of gravity’, she writes under ‘Slapdash’), she is equally unable to commit. This has in part to do with the thirsty sea that underpins the novel: the guilt Maria feels about the death of her younger sister, Summer, twenty-five years ago. Very early on she tells us, ‘I killed my sister’, yet the truth proves to be a good deal more complex, a current of mystery that carries through to the end of the novel. The waves of guilt Maria can’t escape are the driving force of the narrative, a vast body of feeling that both sustains and threatens to capsize her.

Thirsty Sea picks up in the middle of a life, opening one ordinary weekday evening, and it drops us again just as suddenly, leaving Maria to carry on alone. Over the course of its twenty-four hours, she is restlessly searching for something – what exactly, even she doesn’t seem sure, but she does know that ‘we look for the wrong things in the right places’. And, perhaps, by extension, the right things in the wrong places. By the time the novel closes – following a few formally experimental pages that seem almost to lift off into free writing, echoing the turmoil inside Maria’s head – our guilt-ridden narrator has made a brave decision; one that, as counter-intuitive as this may seem, has a somehow life-affirming quality to it.

Lyrical, defiant and delighting in the myriad possibilities of the written word, Thirsty Sea is a confident debut that tackles big themes on an intimate level. Clarissa Botsford has rendered Erica Mou’s many-layered Italian into an English radiant with meaning, producing a novel that is as effortlessly readable as it is thought-provoking. A delicious work of contemporary fiction, it suggests great things are yet to come from both Mou and Héloïse Press.

Thirsty Sea by Erica Mou, translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford, is available in paperback from Héloïse Press.


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