Cover of book: Dandelions

Thea Lenarduzzi

In her remarkable debut Dandelions, Thea Lenarduzzi traces four generations of her father’s family and their movements between Italy and England, gathering the stories scattered in their wake.

Setting out to capture her family history through interviews with her nonagenarian grandmother Dirce, Lenarduzzi quickly finds herself grappling with the nature of storytelling. She anchors her retellings in Joan Didion’s assertion that “we live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience”.

Lenarduzzi is wary of the impulse for narrative closure. Like Didion, she focuses on phantasmagoria, exploring the tensions that underscore her family’s relationship with Italy through vivid imagery. But where Didion tended towards disenchantment, Lenarduzzi firmly embraces the opposite. She finds potent symbols amid the phantasmagoria and subtly evokes their haunting power, which endows her work with a fabular quality redolent of Marina Warner.

The dandelion motif holds the project together. The book opens with a description of Dirce picking the plant in Manchester in the late 1950s, much to the locals’ disquiet. While Italians are fond of eating dandelions “gently wilted” and “tossed with salt, perhaps a splash of vinegar or squeeze of lemon, and the essential olive oil”, in England this bitter root is just a weed and Dirce has to buy olive oil from a pharmacy. In this “resilient golden wonder” Lenarduzzi has stumbled across a symbol ready-made for her meditation on roots. She embarks on a study of the dandelion’s cultural history and depiction in art.

Lenarduzzi follows other threads that more decisively evoke Italy’s turbulent 20th-century political and cultural history and its impact on her family. She elucidates the dangers that Benito Mussolini’s drive to implement standardised Italian posed for her grandparents’ courtship and ruminates on community divisions wrought by the erection of a statue commemorating Aldo Moro – a politician murdered in the 1970s by the Red Brigades – which appears to weep blood when it rains.

In less capable hands such digressions could be distracting, but Lenarduzzi accommodates her family’s experiences without becoming obscure. Ultimately, the book’s greatest strength lies in her willingness to disturb histories previously thought to be settled.

Fitzcarraldo, 288pp, $26.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Dandelions, Thea Lenarduzzi".

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