Review: The Reprisal

Posted 16 July, 2014 by Lianne in Books / 0 Comments

The Reprisal
By: Laudomia Bonanni, Susan Stewart (Translation), Sara Teardo (Translation)
Format/Source: eBook; free download from the University of Chicago Press

In the bitterly cold winter of 1943, the Italian countryside is torn apart by violence as partisans wage a guerilla war against the occupying German army and their local fascist allies. In the midst of this conflict, a ragtag group of fascist supporters captures a woman in the late stages of pregnancy. Suspecting her of being in league with the partisans, they hastily put her on “trial” by improvising a war tribunal one night in the choir stalls of the abandoned monastery that serves as their hide-out. This sham court convicts the woman and sentences her to die—but not until her child has been born. When a young seminarian visits the monastery and tries to dissuade the fascist band from executing their sentence, the absurd tragedy of the woman’s fate is cast in stark relief. The child’s birth approaches, an unnerving anticipation unfolds, and tension mounts ominously among the characters and within their individual psyches.

Based on a number of incidents that took place in Abruzzo during the war, Laudomia Bonanni’s compact and tragic novel explores the overwhelming conflicts between ideology and community, justice and vengeance. The story is embedded in the cruel reality of Italian fascism, but its themes of revenge, sacrifice, and violence emerge as universal, delivered in prose that is at once lyrical and brutal.In her native Italy, Bonanni, a writer of journalism and critical prose as well as fiction, is hailed as one of the strongest proponents of post-war realism, and this is the first of her novels to be made available to Anglophone readers. Translators Susan Stewart and Sara Teardo render Bonanni’s singular style—both sparse and emotive, frank and poetic—into readable, evocative English.

I received an email informing me that this novel was the free eBook featured for the month of July. It sounded interesting–I’m always up for a novel written by an Italian author–so I decided to check it out 🙂

The novel in many ways reminded me of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites (review) in that a woman is sentenced to death but in this instance the sentence would not be carried out until after the child is born. Set towards the end of the Second World War and the confusion of German soldiers and Allies across the countryside, it paints a very oppressive and sombre atmosphere to the novel.

The characters assembled in this tale is a rather motley group, the group of fascist supporters coming from an array of backgrounds and places, and in the end rather unsure of their cause in the face of this woman’s impending birth. Their collective behaviour is akin to a mob mentality; away from the hierarchy, they are unsure of what they are doing and where they are going with their claims. I felt bad for the seminarian who enters the picture later on; he is trying to reach out and help however he can and his presence is greeted with a rather mixed reaction. However, his intentions were wholly good, a positive sliver against the mesh of confusion and darkness.

I did have some difficulty with La Rossa, the condemned woman of the novel. She wasn’t very likeable; at least with Agnes (going back to Burial Rites again for a moment), you began to sympathise and understand why she was the way she was over the course of the novel and as you got to know her. In this novel, however, like her actions with the men, she pushes the reader away, leaving us with an impression that she’s just bitter inside and out with no regard for anything. It’s provocative, but there’s no payback or explanation for it to garner a shred of my understanding; if anything, it also got really annoying after a while. Towards the end, the character started opening up, but it still didn’t feel enough for me to understand the character completely.

Thematically, this short novel is chock-full of thoughts and conflicts, touching on social issues such as country vs. the city, education, the rich vs. the poor, etc. Women’s issues and status of the time is represented through La Rossa, and she is not shy in voicing her opinion to the men of her unfair treatment, labelling her overall role, etc. One theme that does emerge later on and that felt more like a tack-on rather than an overarching theme that I was aware of was that of memory and the impact of the Second World War in Italy; it’s an interesting theme, searching for answers, the fates of certain characters, of the lives that continued and were lost…but it sort of dragged the ending out, it could have finished a chapter earlier.

The Reprisal is overall an intriguing story, and it was interesting to read about the Italians’ experience of the Second World War written by an Italian.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Learn more about the book from University of Chicago Books website

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