ome-born Francesca Marciano spent years in Kenya and New York. With bilingual fluidity and a geographic carousel as a CV, her worldview is expansive and deft. Her impressive nine-story collection, “The Other Language” (Pantheon Books: New York, 2014) examines the very notion of a “journey.” And where it may take us.
Jettisoning exhausted re-invention clichés, Marciano observes her actors as they choose fresh settings, and sometimes-unfamiliar grammars. What they desire is to move beyond familiar boundaries, of all kinds, in search of a “real” or “other” self.
In this self-hunt, eight of Marciano’s third person tales focus female protagonists. These are women juggling volcanic life changes and emotions.
But make no mistake: this is not a gender-bound or “feminist” volume. As the story “An Indian Soirée” demonstrates. The author fairly listens to a Roman husband and wife while on a life-altering trip to India. In “Soirée” they are referred to simply “he” and “she.”
He’s a self-obsessed, glum writer, bored with India. It’s provided no breakthrough for his declining writer skills. Nightly, he dreams his death. She’s excited by new experiences and emotions; has an orgasmic dream, involving a long-ago lover. Then: a one-night drama. He goes alone to an Indian soirée featuring a traditional dance, imagines that the exotic lead performs only for him. Here’s the life change. He’ll remain in India, near her. Meanwhile, in their hotel, she Skype-locates the ex-lover, who invites her to Paris. Separately, he and she fantasize new lives. How will such “other selves” fare?
In “The Club,” we meet Mrs. De Costa. Years ago, she sought a different life. A plain Scotch girl from a dysfunctional family, she fell in love with and married a Kenyan student while at Edinburgh University. She thought she was heading for a brighter life in Mombassa. Racial and class prejudice come as a surprise to her. The couple and their mixed-blood children lead fringe lives. Once grown, the children leave Kenya. He dies. No connections left in Scotland, and never fully Kenyan, Mrs. De Costa is now alone. She often wonders: Who have I finally become?
The heart of this collection lies in a question: What happens when we deliberately pass a threshold, or open a hidden door?
In “The Presence of Men,” Lara is the classic middle-aged housewife whose husband divorces her for a young girl. Lara’s small exit-payment buys an investment property in a tiny southern Italian village. Her city ambitions impose a simple but glam restoration. Which eliminates the property’s traditional function as a communal bakery. And tempts her leeching brother into vacation visits. Advised by an elderly local seamstress, she restarts the bakery. The house and courtyard are once again a business, and no longer bro’s vacation stop. More importantly, Lara has a life. “She’d longed to be anything but the same woman (her husband) had wanted to leave.”
In the penetrating opening story, “The Other Language,” Emma’s mother suddenly and mysteriously dies when she is 13. To their pained confusion, all three young children are told only that it was “an accident.”
Emma’s father takes them from Rome for a get-away-from- it-all summer on a Greek island. There, Emma encounters two, teen Brits, and falls in love with their clipped speech. In such precise language won’t her confusion, and her pain disappear? Over years, she becomes perfect in that tongue, finally moving to the United States and marrying an American. How clever of her to think she can leave the other Emma behind, in Italy, and in Italian.
The volume closes with “Roman Romance,” a bittersweet take on identity. At 19, Elsa had a yearlong love affair with Barker, a young American rocker singing in Rome. One day, he cruelly tossed her out: game over. After his return to the States, his song “Roman Romance” tops international charts, and stays there. Despite her honest denials, local gossip identifies dark-haired Elsa as the golden girl in the song.” Now, she’s 39, lonely and single. A rich, handsome acquaintance unexpectedly asks her out. To the Rome concert in Barker’s European tour. VIPs at the performance fawn on her; the date warmly kisses her. Suddenly, she lies: yes, she says, she’s “the girl in the song.” Maybe the song persona will have a happier life.
Marciano’s sparkling collection poignantly traces an eternal human dream: that there is a better life, worth living. Perhaps in a change of geography, language, or identity. As her ironically provocative tales prove: the dream goes on.