Book Review: Eva Sleep by Francesca Melandri (Katherine Gregor, trans.)

melandriItaly, 1963: Gerda comes from a poor family in the Alto Adige/South Tyrol region of Italy. At 16, she is sent off to work in a tourist hotel by her father; the life ahead of her bleak, she’d become one of the many female cooks nicknamed matratzen (mattresses). But she will soon become a matratze who is actually respected by the men in the hotel. All around Gerda is a region in turmoil; Alto Adige is home to German-speaking citizens who’d prefer to be part of Austria and Italian soldiers ordered to wrest the people into Italian culture. Despite having avoided harm at the hotel, the civil unrest in the region will not avoid her family.

Italy, present day: Eva receives a phone call. It is from the one man that she might have called her father. He is on his deathbed and would like to see her one last time. Vito came from Southern Italy; one of the thousands of soldiers ordered to stop the Tyrol terrorists. Despite their differences, Vito falls in love with Gerda even if she has an illegitimate child. So, Eva packs a day bag and begins a long train journey south for one last moment with her “father.”

Eva Sleeps is two stories: Gerda’s and Eva’s. One is a sorrowful tale of overcoming adversity, and the other is a story of growth; both mimic the unrest in Alto Adige which is woven through their lives. Gerda’s story is a fascinating look at the political and cultural transformations within Alto Adige. Melandri captures the tension, loss, and patriotism of this region splendidly. Unfortunately, Eva’s story is more a PBS travel special on the Italian countryside. Page after page of scenery: mountains, coasts, vineyards and train stations. All well-written, but I found that I couldn’t wait to get back into Alto Adige.

Originally appeared in: Historical Novels Review, Nov. 2016

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