Tiziano Scarpa is an Italian poet, novelist, playwright and essayist - from Venice specifically - where this wonderful novel takes place. It is a short, dark novel - poetic, sometimes surreal, its composition made up of short, powerful bursts of near prose poetry, some of which consist of only one line. Being that Scarpa is a poet, it comes as no surprise how poetic this novel ultimately reads.
It is the story of a 16 year old orphan named Cecilia who is cloistered away at Venice’s Ospedalle della Pietá. She spends her time playing music with many of the other girls at the orphanage, often playing hidden away behind metal grills or veiled due to the shame of their births. (It is hinted that perhaps Cecilia’s mother was a prostitute). Cecilia spends her time writing letters to the mother she never knew and having existential conversations with “the Snake Haired Girl”, a shadowy, Medusa-like vision of death that seems to haunt her every waking moment. It is through these letters to her mother that the bulk of the story is told. She wrestles with her mother’s identity - who she may have been, the reasons why she was abandoned, and clinging to the hope that perhaps, one day, she will one day arrive at the orphanage and reveal herself. The mother-daughter relationship is explored thoroughly throughout the novel, especially through one scene where Cecilia relates a story where she witnesses one of the young orphan girls giving birth in the orphanage’s latrine.
It is when a “red haired priest-composer” appears at the orphanage that the story begins to lighten somewhat. The composer - Don Antonio (who is actually Antonio Vivaldi) begins to compose curious works for the girls, who in turn perform them for nobles and dignitaries around Venice. Don Antonio takes a special liking to Cecilia, teaching her the power of music, essentially taking her under his wing, going so far as to write a special piece of music with her playing in mind. Then a dark moment occurs in which she learns a lesson in how her personal experience can be expressed through music. Don Antonio makes a bargain with her, one that, if she excepts, will keep her sheltered away from the world although make her famous throughout Venice for her musical virtuosity. To find out what happens, you should read this wonderfully poetic novel.
It is a dark novel. Very dark - and the first couple of pages may be hard to get through as Cecilia reveals her existential angst to a mother she knows she will never meet, never get to know. But there is an uplifting element to this story and that is the power music can have not only on the listener but those who play and interpret it; and most importantly how it can have the power to lift one from the very depths of darkness. Recommended.