Mermaids, maps, amulets and machismo all figure in this tall, busy tale about a girl’s coming-of-age amid plain and improbable family lore.
Manilla’s (Shrapnel, 2012, etc.) second novel features the sassy voice of Garnet Ferrari as she responds irreverently to a Vatican emissary’s questions about the origins of miraculous powers she denies having. Born covered with port-wine stains shaped like atlas cutouts, she seems to heal the skin problems of others. Flashbacks to her early life in the 1950s reveal a range of cruelties, from others shunning or mocking her to the favoring of her smart, beautiful brother and the bullying swagger of her uncle. The past also holds love and pain elsewhere in the family, especially an ill-fated triangle with roots in Sicily and thorny branches in the Ferraris’ U.S. home of Sweetwater, W.Va. Manilla plays with different shades of poverty and wealth as Garnet makes a Dickensian journey from low-income housing to a hilltop mansion. The transition includes visits and extravagance from her maternal grandmother, a rich Virginian with Mayflower antecedents. Her paternal counterpart is Nonna Diamante, long-suffering survivor of a bad marriage who melds Catholic faith and belief in malocchio (the evil eye). She’s a colorful soul and a frequent commentator whose accented English phrasings recall—cutely, then cloyingly—those of Chico Marx. There’s even an environmental lesson about clean water running through all this, a real issue in mining-scarred West Virginia. The narrative variety—from saintly myth to Twain-ian stretcher, shifting speakers, newspaper clippings, a 60 Minutes transcript and two pages covered with the letter Z—brings to mind another unusual autobiography, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.
Manilla’s compulsive embellishment can be wearying, and her ending verges on treacle, which is surprising after what has been at heart a cleareyed, touching fable of a girl learning the hard truths about herself and others.