A Review of the Ebb and Flow of a Life

(Erica Mou’s Thirsty Sea, translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford, Héloïse Press, 2022)
https://www.heloisepress.com/book/thirsty-sea

Every human being has a story, so does Maria. Hers is tinged with guilt, from which she can never escape. She constantly blames herself as her sister’s murderer, in spite of her mother and counsellors affirming over the years that it was not so. For Maria, “death stinks”. She has swallowed the bitter pill of responsibility for the untimely death of her little sister:

There isn’t any 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. The universe may well be expanding. I’m not. The fact is, it's not a matter of time.

The title ‘Thirsty Sea’ appears a few pages into the novel, as a one liner, beneath the subtitle, ‘Breakwater: Thirsty sea, never trust the quantity’. Interestingly, the passage which follows is about Maria’s husband, Nicola. He is a self-made pilot, well-organised, helps old ladies cross the street and is always appreciated by Maria’s mother. The title comes between “Today it is 25 years since I killed my sister” and “Nicola is the kind of person who won’t kill a spider, but will catch it in a jar, open a window, and let it go”. There is a breakwater between the two souls: one a self-accepted killer, the other who does not hurt a spider. The salty sea breaks there, and thirsts for more.

The novel, divided into four parts- Dinner, Breakfast, Lunch and Teatime- on a loop of twenty-four-hours, engages the reader with Maria’s past and present, the future left for us to prophecise. The poetic-prose adds to the beauty of stream of consciousness, where thoughts string like beads on a chain: Maria’s ruminations on Nicola to stencil to clients to computer to nights to conversations between Nicola and Maria’s mother. The first-person voice dangles between closing down the shop for the day and trying to gauge the fathers of Nicola and Maria, along with her memories about a school bag with wheels. The events rush in, in spite of the twenty-four-hour loop, and we gather a lot more than mere daily affairs in Maria’s life. Each subsection starts with a line or more, which summarises the part. Sometimes the lines are rhythmic too, and one can read the characterisation of Maria’s mother as a rap: she doesn’t despair and she doesn’t lap for joy, she weaves through the middle. With the poetic prose running all over the pages, there is less break between a factual description and a philosophical idea. Maria describes her mother, and in between she jumps into her philosophy of how we are all born blank, and then later become red, yellow and other colours. She takes a banana for lunch, but cannot help but think about how fruits must be happier on trees before falling off with a belly full of seeds and left unpicked by any bird who would carry those to another place. Also, the narrative gives space for sensory impressions- Maria’s mother’s neck smells of biscuits, the peculiar sound of Nicola’s laughter, people’s thoughts march like “high heels as you carry on walking”. Lyrical temperament of the narration adds to the effect of sensory impressions.

Maria is a lonely woman. Once she had a dream in which she saw her father releasing a press note: Maria is on her own. We need someone to look after her. There is more of her interior monologue than dialogues in the text, which validates Maria’s feelings of alienation. She feels a stone which almost always sits in the middle and weighs her down and a rainbow crushing her down in her dreams. She doesn’t sleep much fearing that the sky would crush her down. At the end of the novel, she chooses by herself, refusing to discuss the abortion with any of her family, for she has always felt that they would never understand the reason behind her action.

Maria and Nicola share a strained marital relationship. “For exactly a year, Nicola has been spying on me” summarises the over-protective and subtly demanding husband he is in their marriage. Maria saves her appointments using initials so that Nicola would not know if they are of a man or woman. She does not feel like getting physically intimate with him and tries to excuse herself with one or the other reason. Also, Maria does not want a child, whereas brought up and schooled on ‘men’s stuff’ by a patriarchal father, Nicola wants to raise children. Maria thinks of her troubled relationship with her father-in-law, who firmly believed that a woman needs a husband and children. Like “a house of cards on a dancing table”, Nicola and Maria crawl on with “rubber stamp” kisses. It comes as no surprise that she has a fling with Gigi, one of her clients at the shop. Though it was quite professional, it was also a culmination of her frustration with Nicola. “My betrayal was faithful, coherent” and hence, it was not without a reason. The text sincerely paints the picture of a woman who has to eat on her pain of bearing the guilt of a murderer, and then is forced into living with someone who constantly demands her pampering. In other words, someone who pesters her with his needs, less mindful of how much she would want him to be empathetic towards her.

This crumbling marriage has a rejuvenating contrast too- Maria’s companionship with Ruth, her college friend. Unlike with Nicola, Mary is very honest with Ruth. Maris opens up sincerely to Ruth, and in turn “she [Ruth] hugged me a lot on those interminable nights we spent waiting for the sun to rise”. They vow to exchange letters before they parted in London. Also, Maria’s career and the shop she owns is all Ruth’s idea: “Mary, let’s open a shop where we are consultants for other people’s presents! A shop with nothing on sale, no shelves, but full of ideas. We’ll be nourishing beauty and imagination, my friend”. Maria’s clients are very happy with what they get at her gift shop. A bare shop which ‘educates’ people, as Ruth said, to think about being present when they present gifts.

Maria’s shop acts like a story within the story, and also turns a silent witness to Maria’s seventy-two minutes’ fling with Gigi. A bare shop where a woman sits selling ideas, is based on learning how to market the human psyche. Maria has mastered reading the minds of gift-givers and receivers. She plays with the marketing possibilities behind human emotions centred on love and friendship. Also, the shop acts like a repertoire of stories; we meet characters outside her immediate relations in the shop- Enrico and his wife, Angela and Mr. Zaccari, and Gigi. It is interesting to read how fragile people are when it comes to giving a gift to someone special. And Maria acts as a professional here. This shop is not a mere job for her, but her passion, like the sea was her grandfather’s passion, much to the consternation of her grandmother. Maria prepares lists of gift-items very thoughtfully, especially for Enrico’s wife who keeps forgetting the news, how to tie her shoelace or which day comes after Wednesday. Maybe it is her own loneliness which drives Maria to be quite thoughtful of other people. She is very careful so that none of her customers feel that they are caught in a vicious circle of abandonment, but find love and joy in each of the presents their loved ones give them.

How would it be for someone who lives with the guilt of killing her sister, to be in a situation where she has to decide on aborting the life growing within her? Maria weighs the pros and cons of the situation. She tries to imagine talking about it with her family, but then none of them appear to her to be supportive. The repeated “I’m not a killer” shows the self-struggle the lonely woman has to go through and echoes her trauma. She even names the foetus inside her ‘Liberty’, says that she loves her and also apologizes for the act. But Maria decides the future for herself. It is here that we recognize how strong and vulnerable a character Maria is: on the one hand, she relies upon herself, pictures the options in her mind at length, before making a final decision. On the other hand, it also shows how she grapples with the reality:
I’m an accumulation of flesh, bones, blood, nerves, muscles, organs.
I’m not a killer.
I’ve never been one.
I’m not a killer.
I’m a little girl who was playing in her room.
I’m not a killer
I’m a beach that, at a certain point, after years of pressing, compacting, sedimenting, has turned into a mountain.
She swallows the pills which the doctor had given her, stretching her legs to the sea. She repeats that she is not a killer, but aborts the fetus because she does not want that baby.

Maria evolves as a strong woman at the end of Thirsty Sea- the one who assures herself that she is not a killer, the woman who runs a shop presenting ideas to people, one who fights loneliness each day and finally the person who logically argues the case of abortion for herself, and decides on her own. Erica Mau speaks a lot through the story of Maria. The apathy of humankind to be surrounded with people, yet to be cornered as lonely inhabitants of the planet, the topsy-turvy relationships which we all endure at some point of life and the courageous decisions we take by ourselves to move ahead in life, are a few of those. The character of Maria paints the delicacies of an introverted person, especially when living with someone like Nicola, who comes from a house full of people. How uneasy people are when it comes to giving gifts, and how being present while presenting is important, is a thread which remains with the readers. In the contemporary fast-paced world, where people live on back-breaking schedules, Maria walks at her pace. Though disturbed and sleepless many nights, she nurtures within her empathy and courage. Thirsty Sea breaks at a point where the reader can wade in the waters with Maria, and then they lean on each other.

Dr. Nithya Mariam John is a poet and translator from Kerala, India. Apart from three short collections of poems, her scribblings are housed in Indian Literature, The Alipore Post, Borderless, gulmohar quarterly, Hyderabad Literature Festival-Khabar, Muse India, The Samyuktha Poetry, Malayalam Literature Survey, Ink-Kochi, Usawa Literary Review, Sanglap and DoubleSpeak, and upcoming in Last Leaves and Muddy River Review. When not writing, she loves to converse on life, art and literature with her students in BCM College for Women, Kerala, India.