"Paper Fish," by Tina DeRosa. The Feminist Press. 157 pages. $9.95.
Tina DeRosa grew up with music. Her father, a Chicago police officer, played opera and classical music. Her grandmother sang in the kitchen, in the bedroom, in the parlor. "Paper Fish," DeRosa's first book, is the author's song.
The novel's lyricism transforms the gritty Chicago streets of the 1940s and 1950s into a landscape of magical realism. The novel's strong poetic voice colors a world that often appears grim and dreary.
Rendered with a poet's discerning eye for image and color, the novel reads like a long prose poem. The language engages the reader from the first sentence: "This is my mother, washing strawberries, at a sink yellowed by all foods, all liquids, yellowed."
The story of a young girl growing up in an Italian-American family on the west side of Chicago could be pedestrian. But not in DeRosa's hands.
If you are looking for the Italian-American characters of "The Godfather" or "Moonstruck," you won't find them here. That's because DeRosa writes about ordinary people leading everyday lives. The story of young Carmolina BellaCasa revolves around her family - her policeman father, his Lithuanian-American wife, his Italian mother who lives across the street and the couple's two daughters.
The central relationship is that of Carmolina and her grandmother Doria. The grandmother's stories enrich Carmolina's life, and through them, the child finds her place in the world. The final scene of the book presents an older Carmolina donning a wedding dress for her aged grandmother.
However, it didn't carry the metaphoric punch the author may have intended. In contrast, DeRosa's portrait of Carmolina's older sister and the illness that afflicts her is hauntingly beautiful and exquisitely sad.
The source of the child's illness is never revealed, although the family speculates as to its cause. DeRosa never fully explores the affect of this damaged child on Carmolina. The sister remains a strange spirit hovering in the family flat. I understand that this family can't articulate their loss, but DeRosa can and doesn't.
The novel is a fictionalized memoir. DeRosa sees and remembers. She shifts from past to present, occasionally losing her reader along the way. But the strength of the language pulls the reader back.
DeRosa may be an Italian-American writer, but her novel goes beyond the category of Italian-American fiction. She depicts the forces that bind - or undo -any family, regardless of their country of origin.
The title of the novel evokes a Chinese paper-cut. DeRosa envisioned a Japanese kite. Both are lovely, fragile and deftly crafted, as is "Paper Fish."
Ann LoLordo, The Sun's Middle East correspondent, grew up in an Italian-American family in New York.
Pub Date: 10/06/96