A childhood home is an archive and a map––embedded in its spaces are traces of us that chart the intersections of our past and our present. I am writing this review sitting on the terrace of my own childhood home in the port city of Burgas, overlooking the Black Sea and the park that runs along the beach. Part of me has never left this terrace. And yet that very part has defined my multilingual, nomadic existence. The philosopher Gaston Bachelard considered the house “one of the greatest powers of integration for the thoughts, memories, and dreams of mankind” (6). Nadia Terranova’s novel Farewell, Ghosts, in Ann Goldstein’s translation, summons the power of the house in order to dissect the relationship between self and space, memory and reality.
At the novel’s opening the narrator Ida Laquidara, a writer living in Rome, returns home to the Sicilian city Messina to help her mother fix the crumbling roof and to sort her belongings before the house is sold. The stability and verticality of the house are thus undermined from the very start. Soon we find out that this instability is metaphorical as well: the house conserves traces of Ida’s traumatic childhood and unresolved familial conflicts. For Ida, to return home is to face her past, inhabit its most intimate nooks, and relive the painful memories associated with the rooms, sounds, and smells of the house.
During her stay in Messina Ida begins to uncover the story she has repressed––her father’s unexplained disappearance 23 years earlier and the ensuing grief, resentment, and solitude. She gradually reconstructs a harrowing picture: her father’s lingering depression, her mother’s seeming indifference, and Ida herself, only 13, left alone at home to care for her father. The roof and the house stand for the father’s absent body, for the lack of closure which Ida averts as a permanent openness to the ghosts of the past haunting her present. It is an openness she has harnessed by settling into a childless relationship with a fatherly husband in Rome and by displacing her pain, anger, and guilt onto her literary characters.
In Farewell, Ghosts the house works as a figure for the psyche, drawing on the architectonics of memory and the power of place to define identity. Ida crosses the house vertically and horizontally, her life suspended between the leaking roof, her parents’ bedroom where she last saw her father, and her own room where she keeps a few well-hidden mementos. The grounding of Ida’s sense of self extends to the topography of her hometown Messina and its geographic specificity as well. Ida walks through the city, revisiting the places where her father used to take her, charting a map of her past in the present.
She traverses Messina on foot, from the sea front to the hillsides and back, with cartographic precision as if inviting the reader to join her on her journey of self-discovery. Ida often dwells on the geographic fulcrum of her itinerary––the Strait of Messina which separates the mainland from Sicily––and which she loves crossing when arriving from Rome. In her mind, the Strait of Messina carries mythological-literary associations with sea monsters, sirens, and nymphs:
The myths of the Strait had been my fairy tales as a child, Cola who grows fins because of the time he’s spent in the water, Morgana who charms swimmers when the air is too clear, Scylla and Charybdis, nymphs transformed into monsters; the sea that separates the island from the continent. (67)
Curiously, Ida’s last name, Laquidara, which is of course, her father’s last name as well, contains syllables that evoke water and liquid, as well as the three letters of her first name “Ida.” Her identity is thus entwined phonetically with both her paternal inheritance and with the myths of the Mediterranean Sea.
Crossing the Strait then acquires symbolic significance for Ida: she is stuck between her personal Scylla and Charybdis, between childhood and adulthood, land and sea, her house in Rome and her home in Messina. This coexistence of myth and reality, the conflation of time and space, is a characteristic of the Mediterranean itself as a “timeless zone,” as Iain Chambers reminds us in his pivotal study which lends the title of this review (2). To locate her true home, Ida must complete the crossing—as she does in the novel’s brilliantly plotted and narrated conclusion.
Nadia Terranova’s novel is a psychologically astute narrative about trauma and its potential resolution. The father’s name, body, and voice structure the text in three parts. But despite his prominent presence paradoxically foregrounded by his absence, this is also a story about Ida’s relationship with her mother, about finding the words to express her grief and mourn with her mother. It is a story about Ida’s solipsistic idea of suffering as the only definitive truth in her life and her blindness to the suffering of others. She must dismantle the confines of both the house and her self-absorption, she must empathize with the personal tragedies of others before she can finally liberate herself from her own and move on.
Published in Italy in 2018, Farewell, Ghosts is Terranova’s first novel translated in English. It can be situated within a tradition of Italian writing about Sicily and the Mediterranean: the works of Leonardo Sciascia, Andrea Camilleri, Tomasi di Lampedusa, and Elio Vittorini come to mind. But it’s also a distinctly female voice that dwells on a topic rarely broached in literary texts—the father’s depression narrated by the daughter who is a spectator of his decline, as the scholar Serena Todesco notes in a recent interview with Terranova. Comparing Terranova to Elena Ferrante, another contemporary Italian woman writer who thematizes disappearance and delves into the recesses of the feminine psyche, seems inevitable. Especially so for the Anglophone reader who will no doubt detect in Farewell, Ghosts Ann Goldstein’s voice and connect it to Goldstein’s translations of Ferrante.
As I was reading the novel in English, I was struck by a particular phrase. In a crucial passage Ida describes her mother’s hoarding habit as a coping mechanism: “my mother had accumulated an undifferentiated jumble of things, united by a presumption of usefulness” (122). The phrase “jumble of things” recalls Ann Goldstein’s translation of Ferrante’s dialectal word frantumaglia as a “jumble of fragments.” Terranova’s Italian does not call for the word “jumble.” It says, “my mother had amassed nondescript things” (“mia madre aveva ammassato cose indistinte”). It seems to me that Goldstein translates Terranova by way of her translation of Ferrante. Goldstein perhaps reads both Ida and her mother as suffering from frantumaglia, a feminine experience of disorientation, turmoil, or collapse often as a response to women’s subjugation within a patriarchal culture. Or, in the case of Farewell, Ghosts, within the house as the embodiment of the father.
However, Terranova’s literary debt is primarily elsewhere, as signaled by the novel’s epigraph: “I always had the impression that we were a strange family, neither rich nor poor, much richer than the poor and much poorer than the rich, with a garden that was like a garden for the rich but [with] a dark toilet where fungi grew.” This epigraph is from the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg’s short autobiographical essay “Childhood” where the garden functions as a metaphor for the spatio-temporal coordinates of childhood. The same image—the vast garden and the fungi-infested toilet—appears in Ginzburg’s most famous work, her 1963 memoir-novel Family Lexicon. In evoking Ginzburg as the paratextual frame to her novel, Terranova identifies her matrilineal literary legacy and bids farewell to the paternal ghosts.
Terranova, Nadia. Farewell, Ghosts. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Seven Stories Press, 2020.
Stiliana Milkova is associate professor of comparative literature at Oberlin College and the editor of Reading in Translation. She has translated from Italian works by Anita Raja, Antonio Tabucchi, Alessandro Baricco, Dario Voltolini, and others.
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Beacon Press, 1964.
Chambers, Iain. Mediterranean Crossings. The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity. Duke UP, 2007.
Ferrante, Elena. Frantumaglia. A Writer’s Journey. Translated by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions, 2016.
Ginzburg, Natalia. Un’assenza. Racconti, Memorie, Cronache, 1933-1988. Edited by Domenico Scarpa. Einaudi, 2016.
Ginzburg, Natalia. Lessico famigliare. Einaudi, 2012. Ebook.
Terranova, Nadia. Addio fantasmi. Einaudi, 2018. Ebook.
Todesco, Serena. “Intervista a Nadia Terranova.” In “La Sicilia a firma femminile: uno sguardo diacronico e sincronico dal XV al XXI secolo,” Rivista di Studi Italiani, XXXVIII (1), April 2020.