CHIAROSCURO by Helen Barolini

CHIAROSCURO

Essays of Identity
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 Novelist Barolini (Umbertina, 1979, etc.) provides an uneven collection of essays that wander in that unclear terrain which links the search for her Italian cultural origins with her essentially American upbringing. Her drive toward artistic expression is informed by her search for a voice and its true territory. The author misses the powerful inspiration that exists in feeling ostracized by ethnicity. She feels a burdensome need to punish the publishing and academic worlds for not having heralded an Italian-American literary tradition, but her argument fails. She quotes widely from a rich tradition of American writers on the importance of being a voice from the outside, but she doesn't hear herself when she cites Garc°a M†rquez: ``The revolutionary duty [of a writer] if you like, is simply to write well.'' Only rarely does Barolini let her own creativity fly. She shows us what she can do in chapters on her earliest intimations of a writerly self; her adult experiences in Rome, where the American and the Italian in her finally meet (this latter was only acquired in adulthood, while living and raising children there); and a loose charting of the wonders of language, in which she maintains her ``belief . . . that any writer from a marginalized position is writing in the most American of traditions--that of the Outsider.'' At last. Too often, she cannot override her need to state and restate the business of being a woman, an Italian woman, and an Italian woman writer. She is at her best when she writes the way memory feels, as when she links her home on James Street in a small upstate New York town with her thoughts about Henry James, or when she cringes at remembering her first encounter with John Cheever through a screen door in her home in Croton, N.Y. She writes richly about her Catholic upbringing, letting us know that she is determined to be heard. If only she could focus on the life at hand--and leave literary proselytizing to commentators.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1997
ISBN: 1-884419-11-9
Page count: 170pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 1997




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