Review: Michelle Griffin
The lives of the saints have always made for ghoulishly fascinating reading, with their visions and miracles and martyrdoms. First-time novelist Elise Valmorbida borrows the bizarre biography of the Italian saint Barbara, sometimes called “The Astonishing”, to make the framework for her own playful take on the life of an Italian migrant woman, Matilde Forlan.
Matilde’s 20th-century trials are not as lurid as those of St Barbara, a teenage mystic who was tortured and killed in the Middle Ages. But Matilde grows up with the blood-soaked bible stories of the nun nicknamed Sister Gore, who asks the little villagers to imagine Christ flayed alive. She is also fascinated by the little Scottie dog she sees floating in the corner of the world map… the Scottie dog is the island continent Australia, where she will travel with her husband just before World War Two.
Valmorbida uses the Scottie dog as one of the narrators of Matilde’s strange new life in Australia, a kind of guardian angel with street dog wisdom, which he imparts at various italicised moments. Matilde’s life in Italy and Australia is not especially extraordinary. She has no visions that cannot be dreams and sees no miracles that cannot be explained simply. But the surreal doggie commentary (as well as asides by St Barbara and Remo, mythical founder of Rome) help to give her story a fey, magical feel.
Valmorbida’s tone shifts from that of a wide-eyed naïf to a more streetwise, bloody shrewdness. She gently lets down many of the standard preconceptions about migrant women. References to Mussolini loop through the book, but it isn’t particularly political. We get nice set pieces about Matilde’s aversion to church, and her titillation in her old age at the explicitness of women’s magazines. She isn’t always strong, and doesn’t always cope, but the book seems to skim over the surface of any real suffering, as if the slightly magical tone dulls the focus. As Matilde eventually becomes dazed with pills and tranquillisers, the narrative takes on her anaesthetised outlook. Sometimes this works to good effect, sometimes it blurs details that might ground the story. Matilde’s children float by in a haze without developing strong characters, and other friends and workers make strong initial impressions, only to dissolve into the background like apparitions.
The language is most playful at moments of high drama. When Matilde’s husband’s ice factory burns down, a worker is woken by the sound of pianos crashing through the floor in the music store next door. He saves himself from the fire by standing in a tub of ice water, and gets frost-bitten toes, which look “like melted ice cream”. Valmorbida is a clever and imaginative writer, able to spin out visions like an Italian saint herself. Matilde Waltzing may sometimes be as vague as its heroine, but it is never cold.