The Girls of Piazza D'Amore. Linda Leith Publishing Inc. (purchase at Amazon.ca)
As the title suggests, Connie Guzzo-McParland’s The Girls of Piazza D’Amore is a charming fictional account told from the perspective of Caterina, a woman living in Montreal who was nine years of age when she and her family left Mulirena, a small town in Calabria, just after the Second World War. The emphasis on the lives of girls and women in the book is revealing of the socio-political context of the era; in such southern Italian villages, many men were away fighting in the Second World War. Upon their return, they often departed again to locate employment opportunities as the only means to support their families. The women, therefore, were left behind as the mainstay to traditional Italian family life; they cared for the children and generally managed domestic concerns until their male counterparts were able to return and assume their place again as the head of the household. Sometimes, that intervening period could extend for years.
This novel’s consideration of this period in Italy is complex and sophisticated in its rendering of the past. Although there is a trajectory of Italian-Canadian literature that is informed by an unmitigated sense of loss and longing for a world left behind, Caterina’s recollections that inspire and inform this novel are not single-mindedly nostalgic. As an adult looking back on the period, she does characterize the loss of that period as “a persistent ache of yearning, like the grief for a lost love”; however, these reminiscences of her early life in Italy are also contrasted with a present moment to showcase how life in Italy was complicated by one’s status as a female subject. On the one hand, memory allows the protagonist to reconnect with those women and girls who were central to her childhood; on the other hand, she recalls how women’s and girl’s desires were often thwarted by the strict gender codes in place. Indeed, at times, those strict gender codes were enforced by the women themselves.
The novel’s opening epigraph thus locates itself in another literary trajectory that encompasses Italian-Canadian women and their struggles with a cultural inheritance that is at once rich and nourishing but also limiting and destructive. Citing an excerpt from the titular poem of Gianna Patriarca’s Italian Women and Other Tragedies as its epigraph, the novel promises both to reflect upon and also to critique Italian customs that marginalized Italian women and their vast contributions to their families and that obliged them to grapple with the inflexibilities of a patriarchal culture: they “breathe only / leftover air / and speak only / when deeper voices / have fallen asleep.” With her novel, Guzzo-McParland permits these voices to be heard and forges greater space for the articulation of their concerns. She allows to be seen the very lives that might have otherwise disappeared from view.