Whatever Viola Di Grado writes next, I will read it. 70% Acrylic 30% Wool (tr. Michael Reynolds), her first novel, is so utterly bizarre, so fantastically disturbing, so engaging and interesting and weird and thought-provoking that I honestly don't care what she plans on doing next - I will read it.
70% Acrylic 30% Wool was read in a single sitting, an intense morning dedicated 100% to this depressing, offbeat novel. Centering around "word anorexic" Camelia, the novel is a curious display of various forms of mental illness and disorders. We begin with Camelia's silent mother, who essentially stopped existing after her husband was killed in a car accident (with his mistress). Her silence spreads to Camelia, who is also grieving and suffering in her own way, miserable in her loneliness but also seemingly incapable of escaping it.
It's in this precarious state that Camelia meets Wen, a young shopkeeper who works near her home. Wen has thrown out the damaged clothing his brother makes from his shop in Camelia's dumpsters, which Camelia - in her warped reality - has adopted as new clothing. From there, Camelia returns to the study of Chinese, which she had begun at the university but given up after her father's death.
Wen and Camelia's Chinese lessons form one of the cores of the novel, specifically in the way they showcase language and essentially culture. Camelia is Italian-born, but she's lived in Leeds most of her life. Her Italian identity is occasionally touched on, but it isn't necessarily the main idea. Similarly with Wen, who is Chinese but has clearly been living in England for a long time as well. During their Chinese lessons, Camelia often tries to understand aspects of Chinese writing (why certain words are drawn as they are, why certain combinations do not form the words she would expect). Through these conversations, a more subtle understanding of language arises. As a bilingual reader myself and one who has studied other languages as well, I found these parts to be fascinating and entirely on the mark.
But the other focus of the novel is, I think, much more about depression. Much more about mental illness. Much more about the silence that has seeped into Camelia's life, and how it's impacted both her and her mother.
Di Grado shows us Camelia's mother's abrupt shut-down - her immediate response to her husband's death and the way she simply stops speaking. We see her through Camelia's frustrated eyes, but Camelia herself is tainted. Indeed, as the story progresses, Camelia is the one putting herself through worse and worse situations: an extremely misguided and intentionally problematic affair which ultimately ends in violence and more pain, repeated attempts to express her feelings for Wen while getting rebuffed, and an obsession with certain themes of holes, emptiness, and the Chinese character Camelia has invented for herself. Meanwhile, her mother is slowly awakening - no longer merely lying on the couch without bathing, we see early attempts at building a new life for herself.
I don't want to spoil the end of the novel, but I'll say this - it's fantastic. It's brilliantly subversive, unexpected and twisted. Di Grado takes everything she's done throughout 70% Acrylic 30% Wool and shows us where we were wrong in our interpretations, where our assumptions misled us, and what we should have seen all along.
This is not a happy book, but there's no doubt that it's a very good one. Di Grado's writing is young and believable, very casual but also crisply intelligent. This is the sort of writing that flows from sentence to sentence, no stutters when it comes to describing characters or locales, just a pure understanding of how to show the world. It might not appeal to readers seeking something a bit more polished, but I found it matched my tastes perfectly. Similarly, the characterization is not heavy-handed, but in light, brief lines Di Grado successfully builds the characters around Camelia (who herself is a wonderfully built character).
70% Acrylic 30% Wool is two things: it's a unique book, and it's a good book. Readers seeking something cheerful - this is not the book for you. But anyone who can stomach a bit of grimness, a bit of depression, or a bit of twisted pain should read this novel. Definitely weird; definitely good.