"Answer Me" by Susanna Tamaro

Three linked novellas from this amazing Italian author. Each one is a separate story but read together, they possess an overarching, heavy existential theme. Not the “Existentialism” of Sartre or Camus. Closer to Kierkergaard’s “Christian Existentialism” with its heavy emphasis on Catholic teachings. Questions regarding whether or not humans are perpetually damned and even capable of salvation; existing in a world dominated by greed and envy; the nature of evil and the struggle to live without fear and the search - and definition - of love. This is a very very dark book that packs a severe emotional punch.

 

The first of the stories, Answer Me, concerns an orphan during her last days at a convent. She had been there since a young age after the death of her mother. She is given over to the care of her aunt and uncle - a brutally abusive couple who have no sympathy for the young protagonist. She is searching for the meaning of love and whether or not “love” even exists, while questioning the notion of an afterlife and whether or not her dead mother is watching over her. Even though she is gone, she remains close to her in spirit and as she grows older, and the more abusive her aunt and uncle become, the more rebellious she becomes. When she learns the truth about her mother - in a most malicious way - it shakes her to the very core of her being. As she grows older, and she finally leaves her abusive guardians, she finds a job as a caretaker for a young couple’s daughter. She, finally, feels a sense of belonging and family, something she had longed for her whole life. Then she learns an even more brutal lesson about human nature and what lengths one will go to to protect themselves and their position in life.

 

The second story, No Such Thing As Hell, is to me by far the best of the three - and the most dark and gut wrenching. It concerns a young couple who are forced to raise a son who is deemed a little “retarded” and this does not sit well at all with the boy’s father. Abusive, uncaring, and cruel, it’s maddening to read how this poor child is treated, especially when you learn how the boy looks up to his father as his hero. The boy’s mother - from whose perspective the story is told - is the submissive wife; scared of her violent husband and seemingly helpless to protect her only son. But we learn the boy isn’t mentally challenged at all and as he grows older he becomes more and more religious, furthering the anger of his father. The boy finally finds some semblance of inner peace and meaning in his young life - only a tragedy awaits the entire family, one that could have been prevented. There is one scene in particular that will make the reader absolutely hate this boy’s father and is the most emotionally charged scene of the whole story.

 

The third and last story, The Burning Wood, is a fine read but the weakest of the three - another very tragic story about envy, jealousy, anger and selfishness. An employee of an environmental agency - charged with trying to cure dying trees - allows his imagination to run away from him as he watches his wife become more and more independent. There is an obvious symbolism here - that of the dying trees and his slowly decaying marriage and mental health. He is so distraught over the fact that his wife has her own life, ideas and purpose in life, his rage gets the better of him and only tragedy can result from it. In the end, it questions whether or not people are simply evil or does the fact that they are sometimes confused, weak and frightened that they are capable of doing evil things.

 

One underlying theme that occurred to me while reading this is the effect that the choices of others have on their children. In each of these stories, children are victim to circumstances beyond their control. They are not asked to be brought into the world yet they are subject to the whims, desires, and behavior of those who are supposed to be their protectors. This is not an easy read but the stories are so engaging you can’t help keep reading, although they will disturb you - which is the point. With all its Catholic symbolism throughout, one begs the answer to the question: If there is a God, why does he allow such terrible things to happen?

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