Muriel Rukeyser famously wrote in 1968, in a poem about the German artist Käthe Kollwitz: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about/her life? The world would split open.”
In her debut novel, “The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna,” author Juliet Grames not only tells the truth about one woman’s life, she works in the tradition of Kollwitz by telling the truth about women who live in poverty. The “one woman” Grames chooses is Mariastella Fortuna, who, in the novel’s present, is 100 years old and severely addled from a brain injury caused by a fall, and a subsequent lobotomy.
Stella, as she is known, originally hailed from a tiny hamlet in Italy’s destitute region of Calabria. Given the same name as a dead sister and raised by a virtually single mother, Stella grows up uncommonly close to her sister Tina. When they are young women, their father arranges for family passage to America. There, the sisters marry and raise their own families in Hartford, Conn.
It’s a familiar story; commonplace, even. Hundreds of thousands of people might sketch similar details and timeline from their own ancestry — and not just those with Italian heritage, but Polish, German, Irish, Spanish, Russian and on and on.
An awkward early section attempts to graft magical realism onto a book that is, instead, magically real: Stella, Tina and their brothers may wear rags and eat scraps, but they are as scrappy and naughty and dreamy as any other children. It’s a wonder, as the girls grow into beautiful teenagers, that they remain available. And, as Grames makes clear through her title, it’s a wonder Stella grows to adulthood at all. From a hideous childhood accident, to almost choking on a chicken bone, to the aforementioned fall, fatal events stalk Stella.
So does hardship. Grames, who has based some of her story on family history, eschews the New World fairy tale in favor of the truth. Immigrants could be confused by America’s plenty; a great scene in which the sisters realize they can buy meat regularly illuminates how 20th-century “red-sauce cuisine” really began. Young couples rarely had the space they longed for, instead remaining in houses with parents and other relatives for years while saving enough to buy a home. Tempers flared, privacy was rare and gentility in short supply.
Thus, when Stella takes against her sister in their old age, things get ugly fast. She accuses Tina of ominous things but won’t — or can’t — fully explain her grievances. Although mysterious, Stella’s anger contains no all-revealing mystery. But “The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna” achieves what no sweeping history lesson about American immigrants could: It brings to life a woman that time and history would have ignored. That doesn’t quite split the world open, but it creates a big enough fissure to let the light in.
Bethanne Patrick is the editor, most recently, of “The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians and Other Remarkable People.”
By Juliet Grames
Ecco. 464 pp. $27.99