Body to Body by Silvia Ranfagni
Corpo a Corpo
This is the first novel from the Rome-based screenwriter and writing teacher, Silvia Ranfagni. This debut has certainly made her mark on the literary scene and the critical response in Italy to this shameless, confronting and hilarious book was deservedly abundant and enthusiastic.
Bea, having crossed the threshold into her fortieth year, suddenly feels the desire for a new experience: True Love. She is addicted to the thrill of the chase, sex, the beginnings of romantic love, but has never nurtured a more "meaningful" relationship. She's never felt pure, unadulterated love. In its place is a void, that until this point in her life Bea has attempted to fill with travelling, alcohol, drugs, sex and a career as a content manager, 'whatever that is.'
A baby, of course. But without a suitable male partner (and she certainly scours the riverbed of remaining single men, her 'roaring review of male-kind – unfortunately rather too long to be recalled – included a John Wayne, a Sid Vicious, a Rain Man and a Caligula'), she turns to Human International, a shiny, modern, Happy-Finland-themed sperm bank.
After a few uncomfortably revealing decisions about race - 'How open are you to the idea of mixing your genes with Asian, African, Hispanic or Middle-eastern ones?' and hair colour, and the express delivery of the insemination kit, it all begins: a satisfying nine months filled with hope, endorphins and pregnancy privilege: 'Your belly was a medal, a queue-jump pass, a noble banner of the lineage of Incurable Optimism. It was a stage on which you were always in the centre.'
However, the birth of the baby created with the sperm of the Finnish fisherman whose 'forefathers ... have known hundreds of years of cold, hunger, bad weather and wind, guaranteeing the biological result of rigorous Darwinian selection in that sperm', doesn't deliver on its promises. She discovers she contains not a shred of maternal instinct, and finds The Body (that's Arturo, her son) repugnant. 'He looks like a different species of animal, look at his wrinkles, his sagging skin!'
The second half of the book covers the experience of actually being a mother, sharing your home and life with a baby, coming to terms with all that you've sacrificed, and your relationship with the 'third world' nanny you are simultaneously in desperate need and deeply resentful of. At this point the lightness and humour transforms into something more menacing: there is a distance and violence in the narrator's voice that reveals she is dealing with a state of mental health that most literature on 'motherhood' doesn't even skim the surface of. She feels no affection towards The Body, struggles to empathise with The Other (the Eritrean nanny she hires whose Italian grandfather had married a second wife in Eritrea during Italian colonialism - an important part of Italian history that I was glad to see explored in mainstream literature). She sees a psychoanalyst she identifies as Hundred Euros who diagnoses her with Borderline Personality Disorder. It is this fresh and necessary perspective that is yet to be explored in the English-language canon of motherhood literature, and what really makes Ranfagni's book worth translating.
Using the second person singular and present tense throughout, Ranfagni achieves a directness that compelled me to empathise in a way I haven't been made to by a book in a long time. To do this with such a difficult and rarely presented subject stretches the existing horizons of the role of literature in mental health awareness. Yet Ranfagni holds us back from falling into the abyss ourselves with gleefully witty visual distillations just when the reality is getting too much.
'In the shower cubicle the shape of you scrubs away at itself with the exfoliating glove. You are putting in a lot of effort. The vigour of the gesture says, ‘Come on, start again now’, ‘Cheer up’, ‘Don’t give into self-pity’. Then suddenly you freeze. You are a contemporary art installation. At ninety degrees, in the shower stall, you, your silhouette in the steam, it’s your birthday soon.'
Ranfagni has the rare ability to not self-censor when she writes. Her writing is shameless, bold and unflinchingly honest. At times, the book risks treading a little too close to the realm of caricature, and I'm sure she has come up against some wrath from readers disappointed (or terrified) by this reality of motherhood, as do, apparently, most authors who write of motherhood as anything other than pure bliss. But, as The Guardian puts it in their review of 'And Now We Have Everything' by Meaghan O'Connell: 'Should nothing but stories concerning pregnancy and early motherhood be published for the next 10 years, it would hardly redress the vast historical imbalance between what humans experience and what has been judged worth documenting.'
'Body to Body' by Silvia Ranfagni is a necessary and unique addition to the 'canon of motherhood' (and also the 'canon of mental health'); a perspective sorely needed written in a prose that is searing and hilarious.
Reviews from Italy
'Body to Body is a novel that brings together all the unpleasant clauses and footnotes from the maternity contract, those that no mother would ever want to read, convinced that it's more comfortable to ignore them. A novel in which sharp irony and shameless writing reveal the reality within which the modern mother has to move. With all the nuances that make us certain to interrogate ourselves, reflect and, why not, smile.'
Valentina Marcoli, Pulp Libri
'Most importantly, this book questions the greatest deceit of our society, the fact that a woman's full realisation rests on maternity. And it questions the fact that there is no one single way to be a mother. [...] I found many points for reflection, as well as a prose that is beautiful, open, non-monotonous and sincere.'
Henry DeTamble, Urgenza di Volare
[Translations all my own]
Partial translation available