Sworn Virgin


This is my review of Sworn Virgin  by Elvira Dones.

According to the “Kanun”, “a set of traditional, orally transmitted laws which have persisted for centuries in the remote mountain valleys of northern Albania, a woman who feels the need to assume an independent male role in society must live as a “sworn virgin”, adopting the dress and behaviour of a man. When teenage Hana who has somehow managed to escape to Tirana to study literature feels obliged to return to her village to care for her dying Uncle Gjergi, rather than accept his insistence on the “security” of an arranged marriage, she impulsively resolves to become “Mark Doda”, rapidly learning to walk, swear, smoke and drink like a man. The irony is, of course, that a woman’s gaining of liberty in this way is at the price of the freedom to express her true self.

We first encounter Hana some fifteen years later when, in her mid-thirties, she has decided to take the drastic step of returning to life as a woman, making the transition in the family of her supportive cousin Lila who has emigrated to America. Proceeding in a series of lengthy flashbacks, the narrative explores with some empathy the practical and emotional difficulties of adapting back to life as a woman, particularly in a society in which this means being much more fashion-conscious and sexual, but glosses over why Hana did not simply return to Tirana after her uncle’s death, and over the process by which she began to change her mind about how she wants to live. Also, I may not have read carefully enough, but how did she manage to get access to the United States to both live and work there, it would seem indefinitely?

Although the theme caught my attention, I was initially put off by the clunky style, uncertain whether this was due to the Albanian author, writing in Italian, or the translation into English. It seems to flow better as the story progresses, perhaps as the author “gets into her stride”.

Some of the most vivid, authentic and moving sections are the descriptions of life in the enclosed, traditional mountains where songs and flowers are mixed with betrayal, wounds and brutality, “mountains made of eyes that observe and forbid”. The caustic comments on Orwellian life under communism, in which failings of the system were denied with hypocrisy and corruption rife amongst those in charge, have the bitter ring of personal experience. There is also a strong portrayal of the young Hana, hungry for learning, unable to deal with the fact that men find her attractive, and hampered by her sense of being an outsider, different from other more privileged students.

The scenes set in America seem weaker, verging at times on “chick lit” as, having acquired an impressive grasp of English at great speed, Hana experiments with makeup and women’s clothes, agonises over sex, periodically escapes into the masculine refuge of strong liquor, and banters with her Americanised niece Jonida, who I appreciate may have been included to show the life Hana might have led in different, freer circumstances.

Lila’s Albanian husband Shtjefën seems too good to be true, and a little hard to visualise: “He’s part bear, part butterfly, this man. He goes on slurping his bean soup. ‘What about you, Mark? Did you get some rest? You look a bit lost, brother.’ (Hana is still dressed as a man)…. Before asking for Lila’s hand, Shtjefën had been wiry and blond. His head was like a sunflower. The girls in the village said it was because of his height: he caught the sun as soon as it came out, long before the others, and was the last to lose it before sundown. His speech sounded rare and distant, like the glory that cloaked his family”. Perhaps this is intended to imply the incongruity of living in bland, standardised, materialistic urban America with unexpressed, dreamlike memories of life in the harsh but beautiful mountains.

The super-understanding journalist Patrick O’Connor plays a somewhat contrived role in a story which seems to end too abruptly. Overall, it’s a patchy novel, compelling at times, but some parts could have been developed better.

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