Voices by Dacia Maraini

Voices from Italian author Dacia Maraini is the story of a radio personality who becomes swept up in the investigation surrounding the murder of her neighbour. As a crime novel, it’s interesting and different, and that’s partly due to the characters involved and partly due to the fact that the main character never sees herself as a sleuth.

VoicesMichela Canova  returns home from a work-related trip to Marseilles and immediately picks up the vibe that something is wrong; the doorkeeper and her husband are absent from their usual positions at the porter’s lodge, and there’s a strong smell of disinfectant in the air. Michela learns that her neighbor was murdered five days earlier, “twenty stab wounds in a frenzied attack.” Nothing was stolen and there are no indications that anyone broke into the apartment located on the building’s top floor. The conclusion is that the victim opened the door to the killer on the night of her death. In the aftermath of the shocking news, Michela tries to dredge up memories of the dead girl:

A woman living behind the door opposite to mine and I did not even know her name. I would meet her sometimes in the lift. I would look at her much as one looks at someone in a train or a bus, with a feeling of guilt for my ill-manner curiosity.

The murdered girl, Angela Bari, led a strange life. She was supposedly a part-time actress, but she seemed unemployed, so how did she manage to live so well? Why did she keep a strange schedule, returning home so late at night? When Michela, who is especially talented when it comes to voice recognition, listens to her answering machine, she’s certain that Angela left two interrupted messages. Already deeply troubled and feeling involved in the murder of Angela Bari due to proximity and a feeling of guilt that she failed to befriend her neighbor, Michela becomes obsessed with finding the truth about the dead girl. Coincidentally, the director of the radio station, Michela’s boss asks Michela to create a “series of forty programmes about crimes against women.” The programme is designed to appeal to the station’s women listeners as well as address the social issue and the shocking statistic that “65 percent of crimes against women go unpunished.” Michela takes the job and while she is supposed to be working on the issue of crime against women from a broad perspective, most of her efforts are directed towards the life and death of Angela Bari.

Michela isn’t a detective, but she rapidly discovers some glaring inconsistencies about Angela’s life; everyone seems to have a different opinion about who and what she was, and there are times when Michela wonders if people are even talking about the same girl:

Something about her light and heedless way of walking worries me; without my wishing it, Angela Bari has entered into my thoughts and pitched camp, waiting even though I cannot really imagine what she could possibly expect from me.

Perhaps the most bizarre statements come from Angela Bari’s own family–the very people who are expected to have known her the best. Angela’s sister, Ludovica Bari took her sweet time arriving at the Angela’s apartment when she was notified of her sister’s death, and she “seemed more irritable than grief-stricken.” According to Ludovica, Angela was “mentally ill.” Angela’s mother, a neurotic recluse, isn’t interested in solving her daughter’s murder and argues, while passing the chocolates, that “one should leave the dead in peace.” Angela’s smooth, charismatic boyfriend, Carlini tells Michela that people “are made up of so many different strands, so many different layers of truth.” and that Angela was full of contradictions.

The novel swings back and forth from Michela’s focus on Angela’s case to crimes against women in general–with the constant motif of voices. Michela trusts her knowledge of voices, but in this case, is she correct? Those interviewed all have their own interpretation of who Angela was, but when one steps into “the relationships between members of a nuclear family, ” one walks through a tangled, murky “minefield.”  Voices is not a suspenseful, action-packed read, and instead, while there are periodic threats, there’s an underlying philosophical thread about women as victims of violence and crime as a social phenomenon. Here’s Michela mulling over a crime novel by Patricia Highsmith:

I am curious about her as a feminine misogynist and intrigued by her understanding of crime. What is it that drives the hidden demon, this fiercely ironic writer seems to be asking; is it the inescapable pain we carry sewn into our heart as if it were a secret pocket, or is it a loss of moral responsiveness? Is crime a disease, and how do we get it?

Voices is not perfect. While the motif of voices is used repeatedly in the novel to good effect, the author tries to make a larger statement about violence towards women, and this is too big a subject for this book so the attempt is only partly successful. Some of the book’s message about violence towards women comes through the character of Adele Sofia, Commissioner of Police, but there are passages in which Michela reads case summary after case summary of the unsolved brutal crimes against women and children. While Michela’s research into the subject of violence towards women is a nice segue into the investigation of Angela’s death, the information load detailing various crimes doesn’t add a lot to the plot.

Angela Bari is dead when the novel begins, and yet she remains a strong, yet strangely and sadly elusive presence throughout the course of the book. Michela’s connection with her neighbor makes for an intriguing, not gripping, read. While the solution of the murder is of paramount importance to Michela, the book at times includes some anticlimactic moments which seem deliberately created to veer this book away from nail-biting suspense. As a crime novel, it’s another example of how an author can tackle crime through a different, refreshing perspective.

Translated by Dick Kitto and Elspeth Spottiswood

Review copy

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8 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Maraini Dacia

8 responses to “Voices by Dacia Maraini

  1. I’ve had a Maraini novel (The Silent Duchess, translated by the same pair as this one) on my pile for a couple of years, recommended by someone who knew of my interest in Montalbano and Sicily. Your review of this one will move it up the agenda and I’ll try to get to it this winter. It is set in Sicily in the early 18th century but the jacket blurbs promise another exploration of the role of women in that place and era.
    Maraini was nominated for the 2011 Man Booker International Prize so she obviously has a reputation in the literary community — although I will admit this review of her work is the only one that I have seen.

    • I picked this title, Kevin, because of its different approach. It’s not an entirely successful novel as I think it was too ambitious in its broader approach towards crime against women. The point is definitely made, but the multiple case notes don’t quite cut it.
      I look forward to your review. I’d never heard of this author before and I’d like to read her again.

  2. Maraini’s most famous novel is The Silent Duchess, which Kevin mentions above. I haven’t read it yet. She’s not a crime writer at all, I’m not sure why this is marketed as such? I don’t know why I haven’t read TSD yet as I’m sure it’s very good.

  3. Interesting that the theme of violence against women did not fit that well into the narrative. I like it when author infuses big ideas into a narrative. Of course this can easily backfire and mar a novel

  4. “Why are so many women raped and killed? Why do they so often open the door voluntarily to those who attack them? Why is the fear of speaking out so powerful for those who have been raped? In the end she finds her answers, which turn out to be unpredictable and shocking.”

    That’s part of the blurb to the book which indicates that there’s some larger theme at work, a conclusion drawn re: some sort of social factors/crime stats, something that draws a conclusion about violence towards women.
    While the book examines violence towards women through Michela’s programme, there is no revelation as to why this violence towards women exists (as indicated by the blurb). It’s simply too big an issue for a fiction book. The author tries, I think, to explore the whys through Michela reading case file after case file (the outline details are given one case after another). Yes you get the point that there’s lots of violence towards women, but it’s so varied as seen through these cases: spousal violence, parental abuse, random crime, psycho killers. If there’s a point to be made, it’s that men are killing women, but even then it’s not so simple as some of the case files include children and pedophiles don’t focus on one sex (even though the case files Michela reads include only female children. Plus both male and female children are victims of child abuse, so there’s another angle.

    There are very specific reasons why Angela Bari was murdered and why she led the life she did. These are apparent by the end of the book, but Angela’s life doesn’t really draw any of those bigger conclusions about violence towards women in general.

  5. It’s not easy to include an essay (about violence against women or anything else) in a crime fiction book. It seems that the crime plot suffered from the bigger agenda of the writer.

  6. I’m reminded slightly of the Carol Morley film Dreams of a Life, have you seen it? That’s a death, not a murder, but that same sense of someone slipping past without being seen by anyone supposedly close to them.

    Will you read The Silent Duchess do you think?

    • No. It sounds a bit gushy for my tastes. I rarely read historical novels anyway, and the premise of the Silent Duchess doesn’t tempt me.
      Oh and no I haven’t seen the Morley film–will try to find it.

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