Saturday, May 13, 2017

Hollow Heart by Viola Di Grado | Review

I won't lie: This book is creepy, uncomfortable, and I'm not sure I really enjoyed it. Is it good? Yeah, probably. That disturbing, chilling effect is clearly intentional, reflecting Viola Di Grado's talent as a writer (translated into English by Antony Shugar), but I'll say right off the bat: It's not enough.

Hollow Heart follows Dorotea, a young woman who has recently killed herself. Her foray into the afterlife is rather unremarkable - as her body rots away in the ground, she finds herself completely aware of everything. She's effectively "still alive", wandering around the real world, but now aware of all the other dead souls still walking around. In Di Grado's imagination, people do not really die when they die. They can still interact with the living world, move objects and haunt, but they are invisible to all but a few living souls.

For the suicidal Dorotea, this proves to be a shift in "life". She continues to go to work, invisible to the customers in the stationary store she works at, but her boss can somehow still see her. She makes new dead friends. She writes ambiguously imaginary postcards to other dead people who she knows or has stumbled across. She keeps a journal to track her decomposing body, in gruesome and detailed terms.

Unsurprisingly, Hollow Heart is an unsettling read. Dorotea's description of her rotting body is not flat, rather it's an odd blend of curious and ambivalent. For the reader, however, it can be downright unpleasant. I'll note that any readers with aversions to bugs may be especially disturbed by the graphic descriptions of changes the body goes through during decay. It's... well, it's rather horrifying. I won't pretend that I liked it very much.

It's more than the dry way Di Grado writers about death. It's the way the entire book seems seeped in melancholy, depression, and a lack of awareness. And of course, it's hard to resist the urge to compare this to Di Grado's previously published novel, 70% Acrylic 30% Wool. There too Di Grado focused a laser beam on a depressed young woman living with a depressed mother, and the impact this has on both. The two books end up feeling very similar to each other, as though Hollow Heart is an emotional continuation of 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, but with the creepiness turned up. Perhaps this was part of the problem - I already knew that Di Grado could write creepy, subversive novels (though I would argue that Hollow Heart is far more "normal" and "standard" than 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which at least surprised me in several places), but this almost feels like a continuation of the same. There is an almost pathological interest in the grossness of death. If not for Hollow Heart's clear de-romanticization of death, taken together, it'd almost feel like these books are glamorizing mental illness. Hollow Heart at the very least does little to dispel it.

The writing is a little jerky, at times somewhat abruptly clunky, but it fits the narrative fairly well. Overall, it casts a sense of distance between reader and story, quite befitting a tale of suicide and the afterlife. It's got much of the punchiness that 70% Acrylic 30% Wool had, but little of the enjoyment that I felt from reading that novel (or the payoff from a strong ending). Hollow Heart left me feeling a little, well, hollow towards Di Grado as a writer. Cooler. While I'm still certainly intrigued by her talent, I find myself wishing she'd try a different angle in her next foray... or at least a different take on this same story. Perhaps a slightly more mature one.

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