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26 april 2016

Accabadora is an offbeat coming-of-age novel. The copy I bought on the Internet includes a note that the original owner read it on a flight from Milan to London and found it "belissimo e un po' triste" (beautiful and a bit sad). I read it on flights between DFW and Columbus, Ohio and my response would be a little more muted in terms of range of emotions, but just as impressed with the book's quality.

Accabadora is told in the third person. Its reflector-character – for the most part, though not exclusively – is Maria Listru, a fillus de anima. Those are the first three words of the book, and the Sardinian custom they represent is at the heart of the novel. In fact its title might well have been fill'e anima, in dialect, so central is the theme. Maria has been adopted by the title character, accabadora Bonaria Urrai. Her own family lacks the money to raise her, certainly the money to marry her well or provide for her future. Maria knows perfectly well whose daughter she is – she's six years old when Bonaria Urrai adopts her – but she is by law and custom the accabadora's daughter, and she learns one of her trades, tailoring.

Bonaria Urrai's other trade is "finishing"; accabadora means "finisher." When an elderly or disabled person has reached the end of their rope, and either asks to die or is beyond the power to ask, Bonaria Urrai quietly and painlessly does away with them.

That revelation – which comes early on, and is implicit in the novel's title – will either scandalize you or engage your sympathies. Or both. Depending on context, the work of an accabadora is either scandalous or sympathetic, or both at once. It's not exactly illicit but not exactly trumpeted about, either. With restraint and subtlety, Michela Murgia's novel presents "finishing" situations that test characters' and readers' reactions to the institution. The work of the accabadora is an open secret, valued and veiled at the same time. Scrupulous ethics are involved. A candidate for euthanasia must be hopeless, or beyond comprehension of the concept of hope. But hopelessness can be in the eye of the sufferer.

Maria grows up in Bonaria Urrai's household without comprehending her secret vocation. When she does learn of the older woman's activities, she judges her mercilessly. You see where this is going. Maria is so much younger than the childless widow that a time may very well come when Bonaria Urrai will need her own services and be unable to provide them for herself.

Though there's really only one direction for the plot to go in, it gets there briskly but obliquely. A long passage late in the novel takes Maria from Sardinia to Turin, where she becomes governess to two spoiled children. It's "un'altra vita" (120), a different life, or at least a different literary model. Maria has come of age and must now observe the coming-of-age of one of her charges, Piergiorgio Gentili. Observe, and intervene – and you can kind of see where that plot must go as well. What's unclear is how the Turin plot relates, in narrative or thematic terms, to the Sardinian story; and it's unclear how the Sardinian story will resume.

That's what I mean by "offbeat" and "oblique": by combining a couple of conventional one-track narrative models (and in unique cultures and physical settings), Murgia creates a kind of hybrid novel that lets us see a variety of challenges faced by the sensitive but resilient and resourceful Maria Listru. The result is a subtle and original fiction.

Murgia, Michela. Accabadora. 2009. Torino: Einaudi, 2011.