By: Viola di Grado
Format/Source: Paperback; my purchase
In this courageous, inventive, and intelligent novel, Viola di Grado tells the story of a suicide and what follows. She has given voice to an astonishing vision of life after life, portraying the awful longing and sense of loss that plague the dead, together with the solitude provoked by the impossibility of communicating. The afterlife itself is seen as a dark, seething place where one is preyed upon by the cruel and unrelenting elements. The Hollow Heart will frighten as it provokes, enlighten as it causes concern. If ever there were a novel that follows Kafka’s prescription for a book to be a frozen axe for the sea within us, it is The Hollow Heart.
I’ve heard good things about Viola di Grado’s works and she was definitely recommended if you enjoyed works from other Italian authors like Elena Ferrante (see author tag). So I decided to check out this book (though her first novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, sounds very interesting too and got a lot of great reviews!), even though the little mention at the above quote about Kafka sort of left me hesitating for a moment (not a big fan of Kafka).
Guys, once again I have been blown away by a recent Italian literary title. I could not put this book down once I started reading it; Viola di Grado’s writing just drew me in from the first page and just didn’t let me go. Her narrative paints a very interesting imagery as the main character, Dorotea, navigates life after death, coming to terms with what’s going on, that breakdown of her body and how things fade away as she continues walking about in her post-living. di Grado’s writing here is just raw, it can be irreverent at times, sly and hilarious at other moments, and just purely haunting. Everything we know in our lives is broken down as Dorotea moves further and further away from her point of death; it’s bleak and pretty depressing at times even as she floats between feeling the regrets of her life and being totally free of everything.
As an aside and a PSA, if you’re afraid of death and dying, this might not be a good book for you to read as it goes into quite a bit of detail about the process. Not to mention the feeling of claustrophobia and general phobia that circles around dying.
It’s kind of like a ghost story, in a way, Dorotea after death, trying to understand and reconnect yet she can’t without a body. It becomes even sadder when at one point she does try to reconnect back to the living world, only for reality to hit her square in the chest that it can’t be, she’s dead. I felt so sad for her from early on; her narrative doesn’t delve on it too much but I wished it touched more on depression. All her life it seemed like she was trying to grasp for something and after death she painfully comes to the realisation that she’s pretty much in the same place as before. Her afterlife is essentially purgatory. I’m cheering for her throughout the book to find some peace and some happiness, but then I wondered what that would entail seeing as she was so unhappy before and that missing link just carries on into her afterlife. I did however wish that the text expanded a bit on her depression and what led her to where she ended up; her narrative touched on it here and there, and I suppose from Dorotea’s perspective it was ultimately a moot issue, but still.
Hollow Heart is scary and sad and thought-provoking. In a way it’s life-affirming in that we take for granted so many things that would be cut off immediately upon death. But it is superbly written, there were a lot of great passages throughout the book and Dorotea is a fully-realised character whose emotions and conundrums you really feel throughout her narrative. It’s also quite an imaginative piece as yeah, the author really brought the perspective of the afterlife stuck here on earth to life: what would that entail? What can and can’t you do? How do ideas like yearning and regrets and the past and identity work in such a situation? Anyway, all of the praise that di Grado has received for her work is well-deserved, I cannot recommend this book enough and I look forward to reading her first novel and future novels.