cover image The Empire of Dirt

The Empire of Dirt

Francesca Manfredi, trans. from the Italian by Ekin Oklap. Norton, $16.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-0-393-88177-6

Manfredi’s English-language debut is an evocative tale of one young woman’s coming-of-age in 1990s rural Italy. Valentina is 12, an only child living in an ancient crumbling farmhouse with her pious grandmother and troubled mother. Valentina wakes one morning to a spreading stain on her bedroom wall, which she believes corresponds to the shame she feels about having her first period. Terrified of her body’s changes and troubled by her grandmother’s references to a family curse and biblical retribution, Valentina decides she has brought on a plague. Hundreds of tiny frogs followed by mosquitoes, flies, and locusts then descend on the house and vegetable farm, and the sheep begin dying of a terrible disease, all of which Valentina tries to deal with by sacrificing a goat. Meanwhile, her mother is busy wooing a new boyfriend, her grandmother rapidly descends into terminal illness, and her best friend has broken off their friendship out of jealousy over a local boy. The melodious prose enhances the coming-of-age scenes and Valentina’s religious guilt (“it came at night, when all terrible things happen, and like all terrible things, it decided to give me a choice,” she narrates about her period), but too often the plot points are dropped or unexplained. Though it feels unresolved overall, the accomplished prose is a testament to Manfredi’s potential. (July)