Michela Murgia was born in Cabras, on the Italian island of Sardinia, in 1972. She studied at the Lorenzo Mossa Oristano Institute for Technical Studies followed by theological studies at the Institute of Religious Studies of the Diocese of Oristano and taught religion for six years in middle and grammar school in Oristano.
Murgia was adopted as a soul-child – a traditional Sardinian adoption method – at the age of eighteen rather than the usual age of ten to fourteen, because of her natural father’s opposition.
Her third novel, Accabadora, is dedicated to her two mothers.
Michela Murgia’s Accabadora received the prestigious Campiello Prize in 2010, the Super Mondello International Literary Prize and the Molinello Award for First Fiction. It was first published in Italian in 2009, then in English in 2011 as well as being translated into several other languages. Murgia, who is an administrator at a power plant, is also a politician and writer. She has written several novels and non fiction books.
Accabadora meaning “the angel of mercy”, is the Sardinian name given to the unpaid caretaker of the dying. The story is set in the nineteen fifties – in the aftermath of two world wars – in the small village of Soreni in rural Sardinia, where the simple life and mentality of the natives seems to have endured throughout the centuries with its ingrained sense of honour, superstitions, spell casters, legends and ancestral rituals. They give Spiders maleficent powers, they immure alive puppies and crucifixes and holy statues are removed from a dying person’s bedroom.
Anna Teresa Listru, a destitute widow, who is glad to have one mouth less to feed and who also harbours some disdain towards her fourth daughter, Maria, happily accepts the well-to-do Bonaria Urrai’s offer of adoption without hesitation. Anna Teresa tells her bright daughter, Maria, that she doesn’t need education to be able to deal with what women are meant to do: wash, clean and cook.
The unmarried seamstress, Bonaria Urrai, is a “widow of a husband who had never married her”. She is now in her late fifties and ready to adopt the six-year-old girl, Maria Listru, as her “fill’e anima” (soul-child). “That is what they call children who are conceived twice, from the poverty of one woman and the sterility of another: Maria Listru became such a child, late fruit of the soul of Bonaria Urrai”. It is an old, accepted way of adoption in Sardinia which was never legal in Italy and was stopped years ago.
Tzia Bonaria looks after Maria as her own daughter with great fondness and teaches her the trade of garment-making as well as encouraging her with her school studies. Nevertheless Maria is intrigued by her soul mother’s mysterious behaviour. Why does she go out so late at night and why is she so secretive about it? The reason is that Tzia Bonaria did not want Maria to know that she is an “angel of mercy” who goes around easing other peoples’ sufferings and ending the lives of people with terminal illnesses.
The young Andría Bastíu, son of a vintner who is in love with Maria, reveals to her how Tzia Bonaria has killed his suicidal invalided and suffering elder brother, Nicola. Maria is devastated to learn the well-kept secret about her adoptive mother. Young and spirited, Maria is horrified and cannot accept this brutal, horrid practice. She takes her destiny in hand, flees her village as well as Tzia Bonaria without looking back and goes to work on the mainland for a rich family in Turin.
This experience will help Maria to mature and become more understanding and tolerant. Nevertheless, it will take some years for her to come to terms with Tzia Bonaria’s ways and forgive her for what she did. Later in the story, as fate would have it, Maria is called back from Turin to look after her dying adoptive mother. Maria faces the dilemma of whether to end Tzia Bonaria’s life as an act of mercy or continue to have her living in a permanent coma?
Accabadora is a slow novel, matching the slow pace of rural Sardinian life in the fifties. It describes the heavy weight of silence, the uncomfortable burden of the unsaid and the depth of feelings. It is a very strong, moving story addressing in its short account, serious, pertinent current topics such as adoption, parentage and the much disputed subject of euthanasia and the right to die with dignity as well as being a poignant reflection over life, death and suffering.
Tzia Bonaria carries the message of Michela Murgia whose moral is simple: to kill and free someone’s soul when hope is no longer possible and agony is relentless or coma is irreversible, is in some cases, a humane act of love and mercy.