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Antonello da Messina, Virgin of the Annunciation (detail)
Article Fiction

The Face of Human Dignity in the Novels of Fiorella de Maria

Michalina Ratajczak

Fiorella de Maria, Poor Banished Children (Ignatius Press, 2011).

Fiorella de Maria, Do No Harm (Ignatius Press, 2013).

Fiorella de Maria, We'll Never Tell Them (Ignatius Press, 2015).

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19: 11-13)

So the female protagonist of Poor Banished Children (2011), after taking the reader on a long journey of enslavement, brutalization, and pain, finds herself shouting out in the midst of a feverish dream: “God is not in the earthquake… God is not in the storm!” Caught in the crosshairs of empires battling for wealth and control, Warda (also know as Perpetua and Ursula) may be a woman of many names: but her singular focus is to maintain her own personal dignity throughout the events that shake her life. For an impoverished young woman living during the era of Barbary pirates, who are systematically trawling for human prey off the coasts of Europe in the 16th century, this is no small task. In Poor Banished Children, British-Maltese author Fiorella De Maria offers a glimpse into what it was like to be living on the coast of Europe during this period, constantly exposed to the threat of being kidnapped for the Ottoman slave trade and the Arab slavery markets of North Africa and the Middle East.

De Maria’s next two books, Do No Harm (2013) and We’ll Never Tell Them (2015), are similarly preoccupied with issues surrounding the fundamental dignity of human life. Do No Harm is a tale of culture wars in Britain, exploring the possible ramifications of living wills which forbid doctors from resuscitating patients who are in self-induced comas stemming from suicide attempts. We’ll Never Tell Them is a story within a story exploring the devastation of the two world wars in the 20th century. They are both told from the perspective of young women adrift in and seemingly forgotten by the world: just as their shared country of origin, Malta, lies adrift in the Mediterranean, largely forgotten by its more powerful neighbors. If the relentlessly stubborn protagonists of De Maria’s novels are any indication, the Maltese know how to dig in their heels against the vicissitudes of history. A windswept, rocky island of extremes, De Maria makes us imagine a Malta inhabited by people of a similarly uncompromising constitution.

And yet, for all their grand, overarching portrayals of historical events, De Maria’s novels are more personal than political, because they unfold largely through the eyes of their tightly-wound young female protagonists. These are women who fight to carve out a sense of their own separateness, their own space – both from deeply flawed institutional systems, as well as flawed interpersonal and familial dynamics. All three protagonists are operating under the curse of a traumatic childhood, where they were expressly unwanted and abused. All three protagonists are then “saved” by an older male father figure of a sort, saved from the realm of their chaotic mothers, dysfunctional families, or sadistic female friends, and inducted into the timeless and objective order of the cultivated masculine, that in turn is a refuge from the prevailing Darwinian culture in which the strongest exploit the weakest.

In Poor Banished Children, Ursula is banished from her family after embracing the corpse of her dead father, beside whom she was supposed to be keeping vigil. After a rag-tag existence, she is found by a priest who is in need of a protégé: he then teaches her the art of medicine, knowledge of which continually proves a saving grace in the tumult of the enslavement that follows. In We’ll Never Tell Them, Liljana, a young girl living a lonely life with a schizoid mother on the island of Malta, is saved from her maltreatment, poverty, and ignorance when an older doctor finds her a servant job and eventual passage to an English boarding school. Similarly, in Do No Harm, the young legal trainee Maria channels the rage of a childhood marred by bullying, an alcoholic father, and death of her mother into a legal battle for human dignity. She is offered this chance by Jonathan, a middle-aged lawyer fighting for a doctor’s right to save a patient with a do not resuscitate order, the doctor who by coincidence also saved Maria from her own suicide attempt. The reader certainly has the choice of seeing this as annoyingly paternalistic; and yet, the refuge these male figures provide is what shields these vulnerable female characters from a social paradigm in which the strong prevail: basically, from the brutality of unscrupulous men and broken institutional systems.

De Maria’s novels are not necessarily an easy read. The reader is never able, even for a moment, to forget that the women in these narratives are engaged in a fight for their lives. There is rarely a moment of levity: all the more so because a brutal childhood forces them all to grow up so quickly. Even as children, they are simultaneously adult-like, and gravely feral in their abandonment. We never get a child-like view of things, because these characters never have a childhood. The child Liljana, who has just arrived in England in We’ll Never Tell Them, reflects on how the trees rustle eerily in “the gloaming” – a rather morose term we do not readily associate with a child’s thought process. Then there is the constant threat of harm from all sides – except from those who profess the Catholic faith and are true to the convictions of its creed. It’s a stark universe that De Maria presents: a small group of Catholics staunchly standing for human dignity on one side, and on the other, the “godless” forces of a world which operates by the commodification of human lives.

What I found as interesting as the important social issues she presents in her novels is De Maria’s depiction of her characters’ personal journeys to emancipate themselves from the flawed generational dynamics they are born into. These are girls carrying heavy “baggage”, and perhaps asking themselves where, in their anxiety-soaked universe, the voice of God can be discerned. They are all born under the curse of being unwanted. As a character in We’ll Never Tell Them puts it: “…it sets the tone for a person’s life when someone didn’t want them before they were even born”. This has the potential to set them up for a lifetime of not knowing their place, drifting, either with “the luxuriant ache of the perpetual outsider” as one female character puts it, or with the perpetual anxiety of hunted prey.

Children who were never really allowed to be children tend to become adults lost in dreams: of nostalgia, illusion, and the never-ending despair of the present moment that is void of hope for change. There is no progression possible, and no attainable and positive dreams for the future, because there are no firm footholds. Born into the world without the security of that real and concrete love, against which a child gains stability and traction in order to push forth into an unpredictable world, these children grow up into adults trying to navigate a world without the “grips” offered by healthy love attachments.

And yet through these stories we discover that God is not in the endless repetition of wounded generational dynamics, and that ‘we are not bound forever to the circles of the world’, as Tolkien puts it. Instead, God provides the crucial foothold in the midst of chaos. As Warda drifts in the stormy sea after being washed overboard, she clearly hears a woman’s voice telling her that she is being held. Belying her inner chaos, help comes from outside of herself: from kindly villagers who find her and nurse her back to health, and from that mysterious maternal voice that reaches her through the storm.

God indeed is not the “storm” of these characters’ anxiety, tumult, and chaos. Instead, readers of De Maria’s novels may recognize that He may be found, rather, in the world of scientific understanding that provides both a sense of mastery and wonder at the immaculate logic of nature’s laws, as in Poor Banished Children. In We’ll Never Tell Them, He is in the story of a stranger that in turn encourages the undertaking of a joyful but calculated risk. In Do No Harm, He is in the moral order that posits there is inherent value in life, and He is also found in those who protect that moral order and make it their own.

De Maria’s novels illustrate that God is not in the storm. He is in the silence, where we can hear Him, and furthermore, hear ourselves think. Above all, He is the safe harbor from which we are launched into a great, though sometimes painful, adventure. Knowing this divine presence, which transcends human character, we can then recognize the footholds He offers us everywhere, making the universe not such an unpredictable and chaotic place after all.

Michalina Ratajczak is a writer and part-time MTS student living in Mississauga, Ontario.

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
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