Books

The identity of a mother

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03 July 2021

A mother. A natural daughter who rejects her. A biological son, whom she has never met, and who seeks her out. In between, there’s California, the red brick of Bologna, and a farm. Alessandra Sarchi’s book Il dono di Antonia [Antonia’s Gift] published by Einaudi, Stile Libero, can be read in as long as it takes a single breath, or rather by holding it in. The book has a compelling plot in how it deals with motherhood and its link with identity. It enters into the new folds that this word has taken on in recent decades, since becoming a mother is no longer just a matter between a man and a woman, but has been complicated by the arrival of donors, DNA, being separated from those who raise you, eggs or wombs beyond the actual couple. Heterologous fertilisation is often the subject of newspaper articles, while here it becomes a story that opens up the abyss of several dramas. The main one is that of a woman, Antonia, struggling with her daughter’s anorexia. That is, with that refusal of food which is also a refusal of the mother, a self-destructive attempt to cut an umbilical cord, which, for a thousand reasons, has not been done so earlier. Then there is the daughter Anna’s desperate search for herself by erasing her own body.

What is the connection between body and soul? The question explodes when Antonia’s past bursts into the present. As a young woman, after graduating from university, she went to California to study. There she meets Myrtha, with whom she developed a friendship somewhere between her older sister and her mother. Myrtha is married, but has fertility problems. Antonia decides, with the impetus of someone in her twenties, to help by supplying her with an egg. Better from a friend than a stranger, she tells her. After the implantation, Antonia disappears. She returns to Italy, overwhelmed by the weight of a choice the implications of which she gives scant attention after making it. That event, now removed, comes back to life when Jessie, Myrtha’s 26-year-old son, conceived thanks to Antonia’s egg, comes to look for her.

Jessie is looking for the origin of his body. He wants to know where it came from. He knows that his “mother” is the one who raised him. Yet, he also needs to know who the woman is who gave him half his DNA. Because the body is not a shell. Because in the features of the self is mysteriously intertwined what we call “I”. To separate them, to act as if they were two separate entities, means not being able to be oneself. It is the same drama that, in a different way, Anna, the beloved daughter, goes through, since she cannot find herself and wants to erase her body. In all this there is a “gift” that generates, but also breaks up, separates, what asks to be united. Therefore, who knows if it really is a gift?

By Elisa Calessi