By Antonella Lettieri
“This is one of the joys of literature in translation: imagining the book that was and the books that could have been”.
Thirsty Sea is the debut novel by Italian singer and musician Erica Mou, beautifully translated into English by Clarissa Botsford and published in May 2022 by Canterbury-based Héloïse Press, an independent publisher championing worldwide female talent.
Set over twenty-four hours and organised around four meals spanning from Dinner to Teatime, this witty and lyrical novel portrays the turmoil of thirty-two-year-old Maria who, as the publisher’s blurb aptly puts it, is “in a state of free-fall, haunted by her past, sidestepping her present, and stalked by a future she is reluctant to meet”.
Maria is unhappy with her job, has a strained relationship with her parents and her seven-year-long love story with Nicola seems to have run its course. So far, everything in the book seems to scream ‘classic Millennial’, but Erica Mou is quick to disabuse the reader of the temptation to label her protagonist too soon:
“Today it’s twenty-five years since I killed my sister”.
Set over the anniversary of the death of Maria’s younger sister, who passed away in a tragic accident when she was only three, Thirsty Sea is the chronicle of a day like any other in the life of a young woman who has survived an extraordinarily traumatic experience and has been carrying the weight of unexpressed and unaddressed guilt for a quarter of a century.
This is also the day that she is finally able to shed the self-imposed label of “killer” and start living a life that is truly her own. A life far away from the conventional expectations of a partner who is unable to scratch past the surface of her pain and her mother’s perfunctory reassurances that “it wasn’t [her] fault”.
Thirsty Sea can be read as a ‘Millennial novel of maladjustment’, if by this very imperfect label we mean a story dealing with the insecurities and the challenges of being alive, at any age and in any era.
Erica Mou cleverly uses the impact of a young child’s death to show how people can fail each other time and time again even when they have no intention of doing so and actually love each other very much. Both Maria and her parents are trying their very best to survive the unsurvivable, but even this is not enough.
As Maria puts it:
“The fact is, it’s a matter of space. After my sister died, my mother stuck her inside me. […] There isn’t room, and it’s physically impossible to stuff yourself when you’ve already swallowed a life and the guilt complexes of an entire family tree”.
It is only in the very last pages of the book, when Maria is debating a life-changing choice with herself, that she finally realises that the only answer must come from within:
“Get out of my head, all of you. There’s no room for you, or for any others. Get out of my body, all of you. There’s me, the dark and the sea. Big spaces, good for big decisions”.
This convincing and compelling psychological portrait of the protagonist, as she starts to overcome the shadows of a tragic past, is carried out exquisitely through the use of different modes of writing, from internal monologue to stream of consciousness by way of personal essay and epistolary novel.
However, the most striking trait of Erica Mou’s writing (though perhaps not quite as surprising when we remember that she is also a widely appreciated singer-songwriter) is her penchant for compound words, double meanings and wordplay which erupt at the end of every chapter into beautifully lyrical poems based around words that mean more than one thing and riff on the underlying themes of the book.
One example, from which the English title of the novel comes, is the two-line poem titled ‘Breakwater’: “Thirsty sea / never rely on how much there is”, in which the sea is seen as an expansive, all-consuming entity that however cannot be trusted to quench one’s thirst.
Héloïse Press did a brilliant job discovering Erica Mou’s wonderfully fresh debut, originally published in Italian by Fandango in March 2020 as Nel mare c’è la sete, and giving it such an elegant voice in English through Clarissa Botsford’s translation.
In her illuminating Translator’s Note, Clarissa Botsford exposes the process of writing and translating to the reader and turns them into translators by proxy: once the reader has been shown the linguistic game that Erica Mou and her translator have been playing, ‘imagining’ the source and ‘inventing’ other possible iterations of the poems becomes a compelling exercise. This is one of the joys of literature in translation: imagining the book that was and the books that could have been.
Thirsty Sea is a captivating tale of trauma, guilt and self-discovery that is as emotionally relatable as it is linguistically surprising.
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