The chicken made me read it.
It's not often that I can pay tribute to a book in those words, but Nives, a short novel by Italian writer Sacha Naspini newly translated into English, won me over in its opening pages where a freshly widowed older woman living on a remote farm in Tuscany decides to soothe her loneliness by bringing a chicken into the house for company. The hen, called Giacomina, settles into bed with the widow, whose first name, "Nives," also gives this novella its title.
Giacomina's presence affords Nives the first good night's sleep she's had since her husband passed away. Soon, Giacomina is even accompanying Nives to the bathroom and perching next to her on the parlor armchair to watch TV. Here's the novella's omniscient narrator giving us Nives' thoughts on how naturally her bond with this emotional-support hen has been forged:
Grooming the bird was no more disgusting than when she'd had to struggle with her late husband's thick toe nails, ...
When [Nives] was in the vegetable patch, she'd find snails in the earth and set them aside in a bowl. Once she was done gardening, she rinsed them out well in the outdoor sink and gave Giacomina a plate of freshly-made spaghetti for dinner. The hen repaid her by laying beautiful eggs that Nives drank fresh or scrambled — the way she liked them best. A perfect give and take.
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There were a few critical moments. Foremost was when [Nives] surprised herself with this realization: she had replaced [her husband] with a crippled old hen. What made that weird was the following: with Giacomina by her side, there was nothing about her husband that she missed. [Nives] was assailed by a sense of despondency ... , telling herself, "I gave my life to a man I've been able to replace with a chicken."
You can hear in that passage the speed with which this novella shifts tones: how it fluidly moves from farce to raw regret. The chicken may have snagged my attention, but what I experienced by the end of Naspini's short novel was Nives' entire life story: the limitations of her horizons as a girl growing up in a certain time in rural Italy; her erotic desires and stupid missteps; her resignation. The dramatic concision of this story in tandem with its wide scope reminded me of Edith Wharton's classic Ethan Frome, as well as Jeannette Haien's lesser-known great novella, The All of It. Less is more in all three of these miniatures.
The bulk of Naspini's novella consists of an emergency call Nives makes to the town veterinarian, a man named Loriano Bottai, whom she grew up with. Nives is in a panic because she left her nightly TV watching with Giacomina to answer a phone call from her faraway daughter. In her absence, we're told, Giacomina: "[r]oosting on the armchair, ... watched the Tide commercial. On screen, the spin cycle was visible through the washing machine's porthole. She gaped at it, transfixed. That was how Nives came upon her. The hen's eyes had gone blank."
Terrified that her hypnotized feathered companion is near death, Nives calls the vet and what ensues is a conversation lasting hours. Bottai, we learn, drinks himself into a red wine stupor every night, but he sobers up fast when Nives' talk veers away from Giacomina to the follies of their youth and to the classmates they once knew who've passed away. Nives mentions a local girl who jumped to her death from the church belfry decades ago, lovesick over the town gigolo. She suggests that that poor young woman has put a curse on them all. When Bottai hears that, we're told: "A shiver ran through him, like a comb going the wrong way." As it turns out, Bottai has plenty of reasons to feel that he deserves to be the target of a curse.
Nives, the novella, is ingeniously constructed around the dialogue these characters have with one another that reads like an extended two-character play. Emotions whiplash and the most unexpected of secrets and epiphanies emerge. And, it's all thanks to the plucky presence of Giacomina, the chicken. This delightful and affecting novella affirms the truth of Emily Dickinson's famous line: "Hope is the thing with feathers."
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