Ties Domenico Starnone

Ties by Domenico Starnone | Book Review

Rebeea Saleem reviews Jhumpa Lahiri’s translation of  Ties by Domenico Starnone, praising the author’s piercing comments on fidelity, societal norms, and the search for happiness which we all face.

Ties is Pulitzer prizewinning writer, Jhumpa Lahiri’scover_9781609453862_932_600 first published translation of the Italian novel written by Neapolitan writer, Domenico Starnone. It is a trenchantly observed story about family ties being disrupted and against that background provides a ruminative look at our contrasting need to be connected with other people despite our niggling desire to be independent. It’s ironic how the dictionary definition of ‘tied’ is linked and confined, as both words have antithetical connotations. This book probes this very conflict in all of us.

This mere slip of a novel reads like three interconnected novellas. The first is an epistolary narrative by Vanda, the jilted wife. She is writing to her husband, Aldo, who has left her for another woman. The letters are written over a considerable period of time and the writer precisely captures the gradual tonal changes as the reality settles in. How the initial indignation morphs into wrath, which gives way to being cheated, how that translates into anger when he doesn’t cave in, which leads to heartbreak and dismay. Vanda’s character is vivacious and outspoken. She calls Aldo out on his pedantic rationales that his decision was an attempt to break out of the shackles of the dogmas imposed by societies. She makes him see his selfishness and inability to inhibit his impulses. She is furious about how he has relegated her and their beloved children as mere ‘gears in a senseless machine’.

“It’s obvious that your critique of the family, of traditional roles and other drivel, is just an excuse. You’re hardly fighting against an oppressive institution that reduces people to their assigned roles.”

It makes one think about the devastating trade-off of true independence; all the attachments you are cleaving in order to emancipate yourself. Vanda points out to him that when he was contemplating dismantling the man-made institution of marriage, did he ever stop to think of the social and financial implications of abandoning his family? Vanda’s section is bursting with undiluted anger and later on, desperation, with her attempting to re-consolidate their broken family.

The second section hopscotches to several decades ahead in time. Aldo and Vanda are now in their eighties and have reconciled. They have been away on a holiday, and upon their return, find their house ransacked with everything scattered, upended or broken. This section minutely observes the reverberations of our past transgressions. The disarray around them makes it clear that someone had been rummaging through their things to look for a mysterious object. The mess – old, discarded letters and once loved books – involuntarily leads them to reflect back upon their lives. Aldo and Vanda are forced to confront their shared past which they had never discussed, preferring to sweep things under the rug.

Aldo muses on how his equation with his children and wife underwent a change after he came back home. Aldo’s perfidy rendered him the status of being somewhat of an outsider, someone to tolerate but not to trust. Vanda criticizes him at the slightest fault and shows disapproval at every instance while Aldo can only placate her as his tainted past does not allow him the chance to defend himself. He is a ‘shadow man’ in his house, walking on eggshells around Vanda. He recedes into a perpetually apologetic and indecisive person, a spectre of his old, complacent self.

The guileless insight into the intricacies of a marriage reminded me of G.K. Chesterton quote: ‘Marriage is like a splendid game of see-saw.’ Whatever else it is, it is not comradeship. The story elucidates how the balance of power shifts to Vanda after Ludo’s temporary liaison ends. It also offers social commentary on how the ideas of fidelity and trust have become more elastic with time.

The prose is not bogged down by the seriousness of the issues it tackles and is consistently refreshing to read. The candid repartee between characters makes the story equal parts amusing and moving. The third section focuses on Aldo and Vanda’s children and shows how abiding family ties affect the decisions we make. Both the children are now in late adulthood but still can’t help rehashing their childhoods. They blame each others’ shortcoming on their mother’s neuroticism and their father’s unassertiveness.

Ties has many exquisitely wrought passages with dialogues that drip of authenticity. There is nothing staged or contrived about the conversations in the book which makes it such a compelling read. The pithy narrative packs a lot in a few pages and it’s to the Starnone’s credit that none of the musings come across as half-baked or shallow. I love books which give an original outlook of the intricacies of human relationships so this book has already made it to my favourites this year.

The fluid and incisive writing examines how the same bonds and societal constructs which are supposed to make us feel secure and confident about our place in the world can end up chafing and suffocating us. Starnone passes no moral judgments, giving empathizing views of flawed characters. Ties is a succinctly written book which piercingly comments on fidelity, societal norms and that elusive happiness we chase and which is the impetus behind almost every choice we make.

Rebeea Saleem has written multiple book reviews for Wales Arts Review.