Book review

Review: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna – Juliet Grames, narrated by Lisa Flanagan

464 pages | Hodder & Stoughton | Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Fiction

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I purchased an audiobook copy with my own money following this.

 

CW: gore, brutal violence, domestic abuse (physical and mental), sexual assault, drug abuse.

 

 

The digest: a solid chronicle of the eponymous Stella Fortuna’s life, following her from a pre-WWI remote Italian village to adulthood and old age in the USA. This novel is so meticulously detailed at times that it reads like a biographical memoir straight from the history books. Fans of historical fiction and memoir-style publications will love this.

 

From the book’s Goodreads page:

“Mariastella Fortuna, known as Stella, was born into rural poverty in a Calabrian village in the early 20th century. After being abandoned by their father, who left to seek his fortune in L’America, Stella grew up with her beloved mother Assunta, her brothers Giuseppe and Luigi and her sister Tina. Tough, vivacious, and fiercely loyal, the sisters were inseparable, going on to support each other through immigration, marriage, children, loss – and the seven (or eight) near-death experiences Stella suffered throughout her life.

Beginning in their childhood with the time she was burned by frying oil, Assunta became convinced that her eldest daughter was cursed, a victim of the Evil Eye or a malevolent ghost. But after Stella woke up from ‘The Accident’, an eighth brush with death, it was Tina who she refused to speak to. Now the sisters have not spoken in thirty years.

Determined to solve the mystery of this falling out, it’s up to the family historian to connect the inexplicable dots in Stella’s dramatic story, and to suggest, redemption of the battle-scarred and misunderstood woman who has lived her life with a fire inside her which could not be put out.”

 

Although the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sections below may seem to be roughly equal in length, I will say right here that this book is worth a look for fans of historical fiction and biography-like novels.

 

What was good?

  • The story itself is incredibly well-developed and coherent that at times, perhaps as one might expect from a book which seems to be firmly planted in reality. (The preface clearly discusses the author’s research and writing process, explaining that this is a more or less accurate account of Stella’s life). Although the title of this novel focuses on the numerous near-death experiences of Stella, the reality is that these are used to loosely frame the character’s life. We see her grow up from an inquisitive and stubborn young child in a remote Italian village to become a fiercely independent woman stuck in a heavily patriarchal world. We follow Stella’s jobs, her relationships, her mistakes, and so on – as well as the deaths.
    • This story is realistic and believable; at no point did I feel as if trauma was being thrown in Stella’s direction in an unrealistic way. I did, however, feel uncomfortable with certain elements of the story (discussed properly, represented in the Content Warnings listed at the start of the review).
      • This might seem like a bit of a moot point if one considers the fact that the tale is based on real events, but hey-ho, this is a review of a novelisation – opinions are justified here of all places!
  • As one might expect from a book with such a cohesive and well-rounded story, the character development in The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is excellent. Not only do we learn a lot about characters which consistently appear in the story (Stella’s sister or mother), but we are also given detailed insights about those who appear for only brief periods. How have these characters ended up as part of Stella’s story? What do they do once they drop out of it? This again can be explained to a certain extent to the real life history of the story, but a lesser author would have struggled to create an account as compelling as this.
    • It is worth noting that, of course, not all characters are subject to intense exploration, though I think that this style of character development works well in the context of Stella’s story. As a young child, elders are important to the girl, as is her close-knit family unit, but when Stella reaches a certain age she (understandably) begins to pay less and less attention about these people. The lack of development (in some instances) is entirely believable and is clearly a stylistic choice.
  • Grames’ general worldbuilding is also noteworthy, with all of the main settings being created in such a vivid style that I could easily imagine not only the physical locals but also the sense of community (or lack thereof) in each. Grames’ creation of her world expertly blends the reader’s preconceptions and real-world experience with enough direction to shape the little Italian villages with its goats and chickens, as well as the tenement buildings of the USA.
  • The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is framed rather curiously; as a family member of Stella’s family sitting down to create a biography of Stella’s unusual life. This framing obviously lends itself well to creating the above uncertainty as to whether this book is a novel or a biography. Grames herself is of Italian descent and I can only assume that she has woven her own experiences into this storyworld.
  • The author’s writing style is unproblematic for the most part. The language used is neither poetic nor robotic, and I found the odd bit of Italian thrown into adds to the immersivity of the novel.
  • The audiobook narration from Lisa Flanagan was top notch and faultless in my opinion.

 

What was less than good?

  • There were a few parts of the story which felt like they were thrown in as an easy way of demonstrating how bad or evil a character was. At no point were these episodes unrealistic, but they did feel uncomfortably disjointed from the rest of the novel. Taking into consideration the fact that this is a novel, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of the following can be interpreted as a complaint about the book or an expression of sadness concerning Stella’s life.
    • It is to the shame of man that women were (and continue to be to an extent) treated as objects to be controlled and used by males. There is no getting around this fact and as such this theme features heavily in the novel. My problem was the frequency and intensity of some of these episodes which did not add to the overall story or character development. I got to a point where I knew that characters X and/or Y was a dangerous individual, but Grames continues to up the ante on how awful these people can be. I didn’t think this was necessary at all and filled me with a sense of dread, especially in the final 10% or so of the story. At that point in the story, there was no need to go to the extreme that Grames’ character did and I felt… disappointed? Not all endings have to be happy at all, but unfortunately now one of my lasting memories of this novel will be THAT scene, and not the strength of Stella, the wonderous worldbuilding, or how cohesive this study of humankind is.
    • I know that some people would argue with my right to be disappointed by a part of a story, and may say that such scenes are realistic and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. My counterargument to that is that the most troublesome part of the novel added nothing to the story or characterisation, and felt like Grames was trying to make character X evil incarnate. I already thought they were before this scene.
      • EVEN IF these events are wholly truthful, one has to ask whether they fit into the novel as a piece of fiction or not. Viewing this book as fiction (as it is marketed), I believe my opinion is valid.
  • The novel is more slow-paced that I personally enjoy, but regardless of this, I think that overall it was 50-pages too long. Following 100 years of history is, of course, deserving of a considerable word count, but some parts of the story were not interesting enough to justify their in-depth treatment.
  • A bit of nit-picking but it bothered my reading so I’ll mention it here: there were some rather off language choices now and again. For example, saying ‘shat’ instead of any number of alternatives. This and a few other choices just didn’t fit with either the tone or the style of the story and did bother me a bit to be honest. An incredibly minor point to be sure but hey ho.

 

Conclusion: 4/5. The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna is, without doubt, a very good piece of literary/historical fiction. As a study of immigration and the lives of women in the mid-late 20th century, it is an excellent story. I won’t hesitate to recommend it to people looking for something quite unlike most other fiction, but due to the negatives discussed above, I can’t rank it higher than a 4. If somebody said to me at the start of my reading experience that it featured sexual assault and domestic abuse to the extent that it does then, in all honesty, I probably would have given it a miss.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Review: The Seven or Eight Deaths of Stella Fortuna – Juliet Grames, narrated by Lisa Flanagan

  1. Hi Liam. I was very interested to read your views on this book which I read and reviewed. I also opted for a four star rating, like you I felt characterisation to be strong and I preferred the American section to the Italian section where things felt a little whimsical. I had reservations about the narrative style which seemed a bit inconsistent at times. You mention that you felt it was disjointed and I think you are absolutely right. I did mention that when reading it I wondered if it was a translation into English and whether the translator did not quite get the voice of the author quite right – but of course it wasn’t. I felt that it could have been a first-rate read but it just missed out somewhat. So I was interested to read both your praise and reservations about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for leaving such a detailed comment 🙂 I absolutely agree about the translation – I was convinced that some of the wording must be due to a misintrepretation… but no it all seems to have been a deliberate choice from Grames. I’ve just read your review and wholeheartedly return your positive comments; I agree with a lot of what you said, especially the fact that the novel doesn’t actually need to borrow the ‘hook’ of other novels to stand on its own.

      Liked by 1 person

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