Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Other Language by Francesca Marciano

Francesca Marciano is an Italian filmmaker and a gifted, bilingual author. Writing in both Italian and English, her stories are crisp and poignant. They are thematically similar to those of Jhumpa Lahiri and it is fitting that Lahiri reviews her book on the back cover. Both authors explore the act of expatriation and its accompanying sense of dislocation.

The title story, "The Other Language," captures the book's essence. In it, Emma, an Italian adolescent of 12, travels to a Greek island with her father and younger siblings. She has recently lost her mother and is trying to sublimate her grief. She does so by immersing herself in the English language, believing she can become a different person in doing so. In part, this contributes to the crush she develops on one of two British brothers who are also summering on the island.

That summer forever marked the moment when she swam all the way to the island and landed in a place where she could be different from whom she assumed she was. There were so many possibilities. She didn't know what she was getting away from, but the other language was the boat she fled on. (p. 22)

This story is a coming of age tale. It is about a grown, now-married woman who looks back on her first crush and a particularly troubling period of her youth. "The Other Language" explores illusions and the differences between our young selves and the people we eventually become.

Other stories in this stellar collection focus on the effects of time on relationships. In" Big Island, Small Island," a woman discovers a former lover living as a Muslim leader on a remote African island. She seems unable, until the end, to reconcile the new image of him with the picture in her mind.

In "An Indian Soiree," a marriage of many years is undone within hours. The husband and wife, locked in a malaise by their own fears about aging, reveal truths that cannot be unsaid. Marciano, in an interview on NPR, reflects: "Maybe it would have been better not to ever say those things and continue...You know, how many people are in a relationship and it could go either way?" (Rachel Martin, Weekend Edition Sunday, April 19, 2014).

In "The Italian System," a young woman who leaves Rome to become an author in New York finds she has idealized her place of birth. The book she will come to publish, comparing the Italian and American ways of life, is pure fiction. What remains unchanged is not Rome, but the author's vision of it.

Another story - "The Club" - takes place in Mombasa, Kenya and explores the class system and subtle racism that permeates society. But it is far more than that. It is also about the loneliness of growing old in a place whose culture is so different from one's native land. And it is about the price of false optimism and living life by denying the truth.

The Other Language is a thought-provoking book with characters both resilient and empathetic. Like the wonderful story collections of Jhumpa Lahiri, it explores what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land.

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