The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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  • Big Girl by Mecca Jamilah Sullivan (rated 4/5)

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    T O Thing W H T F I F I
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Book Jacket

The Empire of Dirt
A Novel
by Francesca Manfredi
12 Jul 2022
208 pages
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Genre: Literary Fiction
Peperback Original
Critics:
Readers:
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In this captivating English-language debut, three generations of women must face their secrets and regrets when an old family curse awakens.

There has always been tension in "the blind house," where Valentina lives with her mother and grandmother in the Italian countryside. Valentina's pious grandmother often hints at a family curse, while Valentina's mother scoffs at superstition; it's one of the battlegrounds on which they fight to control Valentina's upbringing.

But in the summer of 1996, when Valentina is twelve, she gets her period for the first time―and the curse suddenly becomes frighteningly real. Blood leaks from the walls; the house and farm are overrun with frogs; the kitchen crawls with flies. Valentina is certain that she has brought catastrophe to her house and its inhabitants.

In this propulsive coming-of-age novel, of mother-daughter relationships and painful family legacies, Valentina is forever changed by the events of one terrifying summer.

"[A]n evocative tale of one young woman's coming-of-age in 1990s rural Italy...The melodious prose enhances the coming-of-age scenes...but too often the plot points are dropped or unexplained. Though it feels unresolved overall, the accomplished prose is a testament to Manfredi's potential." - Publishers Weekly

"Manfredi delivers Valentina's narrative, as translated by Oklap, in a straightforward and unapologetic tone consistent with the bravado and insecurities of adolescence. Familial truth emerges, one way or another, but it may take a few generations before it can be seen." - Kirkus Reviews

"With her magnetic, captivating style and precise linguistic register, Francesca Manfredi leads us on a journey in discovery of ourselves, changing with the turning of the seasons." - Huffington Post Italia

"A complex and beautiful novel, with a dreamlike, poetic, but never macabre register." - la Repubblica

"At once disconcerting and utterly captivating." - Le Monde

"In Francesca Manfredi's intense, mesmerizing novel, cosmic forces intersect with the domestic life of a girl and her mother and grandmother. With deceptively simple sentences, Manfredi brilliantly evokes the deep mysteries that lurk within everyday interactions. I couldn't put this book down." - Helen Phillips, author of The Need

"An elegant and haunting story of feminine chaos and self-possession. Francesca Manfredi's prose, in Ekin Oklap's translation, is piercing and full of dark, honest wit." - Catherine Lacey, author of Pew and Nobody Is Ever Missing

Write your own review

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Ellie B. (Mount Airy, MD)
Three generation female dynamics
I give this novel five stars. In an excellent translation from Italian, the author delves into the angst of a teen mother, her response to the confines of a forced marriage, and her effort to define her relationship with her own mother.

Searching for her own identity as she matures, we share the young daughter's yearning for a relationship with her father, and her coming-of-age need to declare her independence. It is an efficiently detailed, enjoyable window into the lives of three generations of women. It's an easy read, and at the same time, a thought provoking novel.

Rated 5 of 5 of 5 by Mary L. (Greeley, CO)
Captivating novel
This novel, beautifully translated, immediately pulls a reader in to the lives of three female generations of a family and both the mysterious and human forces which threaten them one summer. Seen through the lens of the 12-year-old, and occasionally the woman she becomes later, one is drawn into this "empire of dirt" and the Biblical (see Exodus) plagues they experience. Most readers will want to carve out time to read this novel in one sitting as I did.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Sandi W. (East Moline, IL)
Beliefs and superstitions
Three generation of women in the Italian countryside with varying beliefs and superstitions. The pressure put on a young girl when she reaches womanhood.

This book reads easily and is very well written. From the premise it sounds as if it could go either way - a good mystery and lesson on other cultures or hokey and just totally unbelievable. I was pleasantly surprised how well I liked this book.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Julia A. (New York, NY)
Charming and Frightening
There is something both charming and frightening about this novel. The frightening part, the Biblical plagues ("Read the Book of Exodus," says Grandma) become a necessary adjunct to the plot, but lend a surreal quality to the book. Valentina's account of the year she was 12 is charming to this adult reader, and may also appeal to the young adult/teenage reader, the mainstays of the YA genre. I have no idea whether Norton intends to the YA cohort, but in my opinion, the average 12 year old would be able to relate to and understand this book, though they might miss a few subtleties. I myself was slightly bothered by the failure to fully explore certain plot lines, and the unresolved cause of the "plague" events, but not enough so that it kept me from devouring the book in two sittings. In fact, maybe it's a good thing to be left wondering. I would have liked to see the character of Valentina's mother more fully developed, or at least as developed as that of the grandmother, but then, this is Valentina's story more than it is theirs.

As a sometimes translator, I wish to give a plug to Ekin OKlap for the way she captures Francesca Manfredi's style. There is no awkward phrasing and I hope to see more of Manfredi's work appear in English.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Molly O. (Centennial, CO)
Coming of age story
Frankly, I'm not sure what to think of this book. I even reread the Book of Exodus to see how the plagues in the Bible were relevant to those in the novel. As the plagues freed the Israelite slaves so did the plagues free Valentina from the superstitions of her ultra-religious grandmother and the guilt of her ultra-feminist mother. Or so I guess. This pubescent girl's coming-of-age story is written with vivid honesty, portraying her summer of female awakening; even as a septuagenarian, I could reminisce about her feelings. Author Francesca Manfredi's prose is beautifully translated in this jewel of a book.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Tricia
A striking coming of age story
In the beautifully written (and translated) “The Empire of Dirt”, now-adult Valentina looks back on a pivotal summer of 1996, when she was twelve and growing up in a small town in Italy. Valentina is the fifth generation to live in the house on the family farm, with her mother and grandmother who both also grew up in this house. Events both totally natural and supernatural occur during this summer. As Valentina states near the end of the book: “the way you were raised defines who you are…the place where you were born is something you carry inside you”. Author Francesca Manfredi weaves a tale of family, women and coming of age, and how this Empire of Dirt (as her mother calls it) shaped all three.

Valentina’s early maturity and budding sexuality happen at the same time as sometimes biblical evens (for example, bleeding walls, plagues of frogs and locusts), leading her to believe that she is the cause of these unusual problems. Her deeply religious and superstitious grandmother, on the other hand, seems to believe that there is a curse on the family and insists on continuous prayer. Valentina’s mother, who became pregnant accidently as a teenager herself, feels the scorn of her own mother, and is unequipped to deal with her own daughter. However, there is no question of the love between this close family.

I wish this book were longer, and included more of what eventually happened to Valentina and her mother after this summer. Manfredi does a wonderful job of fully fleshing out each of the main characters in a short novel, and I would love to read more about them. I found myself not only enjoying the story as I was reading, but also thinking about the book and characters well after I finished.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Gwen C. (Clearfield, PA)
The Empire of Dirt
Although the title is less than intriguing, this novel certainly is. I was immediately drawn into Francesca Manfredi's story of a twelve year old girl's maturation balanced against uneasy family dynamics, a strange curse hovering over her home, "the blind house," and the problems associated with best friend/boyfriend at that young age. This book swerved back and forth from religious to sensual to ghastly incidents with aplomb. The final words of a "microscopic vengeance…a silent inheritance somewhere in the genes, unfurling in its own time," left me pondering much more than this story.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Jane B. (Chicago, IL)
A Trinity In A Castle of Dirt
Three woman: representing past, present and future encased in a farmhouse. The village thinks they're witches. They each have distinctive personalities. Grandma is religious, tied to the old ways, hard on her daughter but kind to her granddaughter. Mother as Valentina describes has a carefully honed skill to get her way without revealing all the "rehearsal that lay behind it". Valentina is a girl becoming a woman between the other two women. There were not ten plagues sent to convince the house to let them go but water turning to blood, frogs, locusts, livestock pestilence and darkness play a part before the house succumbs to the wishes of the women.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Sara Parkin
The Empire of Dirt
The plot was weak i think in an attempt to focus on the main character who was only mildly interesting. I would not buy this book as I had to plow through it. The writing was good or I would have stopped reading it.

Rated 4 of 5 of 5 by Lisa
Intriguing
I received an advance copy of this book from the publisher to review. The story focuses on 3 women of a family - grandmother, mother and daughter - but it is the daughter, Valentina's, story. Told in the first person narrative, she tells of her childhood growing up in the "blind house", so named by the neighboring families.
The author writes gorgeous, evocative prose and I was immediately drawn to Valentina and her family background and dynamics. Daily events and life experiences are shrouded in mystery and often take on exaggerated, gothic-like stature. For example, when Valentina first enters puberty, she keeps it to herself, thinking it is something shameful and bad. The house becomes infested with frogs for weeks on end, then leave as quickly as they started, all without reasoning or explanation.
As the story progresses, and the ongoing relationships between these women reveals itself more and more, it became difficult at times to understand what was significant and what wasn't. There was a bit too much meandering from the storyline for me - could have benefited being a little tighter and more focused. The ending itself felt less like a conclusion than it was presented. Having said that, the author's writing as stated above, is beautiful and flows effortlessly and I look forward to reading more from her.

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Francesca Manfredi is a graduate of the creative writing school Scuola Holden, founded by Alessandro Baricco. Her debut short story collection, Un Buon Posto Dove Stare (A Place to Stay In), won Italy's Premio Campiello Opera Prima. She lives in Turin, Italy.

Ekin Oklap was born in Turkey and grew up in Italy. She translates from Turkish and Italian, and currently lives in London. As a translator, she was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

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