Book review: Murder in Matera by Helene Stapinski

Author: Helena Stapinski

Publisher: Dey Street Books

Publication date: 22 March.2018

Book length: 320 pages

Format: Paperback

Language: English

Genre: Memoir

Synopsis:

From the age of four, Helene Stapinski heard lurid yet inspiring tales about her great-great-grandmother Vita, a loose woman back in Southern Italy who fled to America in 1892 with her three children after committing murder. Gripped by her family’s story, Helene embarked on a decade-long fact-finding mission, making numerous trips to Basilicata, the rural “instep” of Italy’s boot—once known for its superstitions, criminals, and desperate poverty. It’s an undiscovered land filled with badlands-like hills, ancient caves, and fertile valleys with silver-tinged olive trees, whose isolation is matched only by its forlorn, incredible beauty. In a stunning turn of events, Helene comes to learn what really happened, sparking an upheaval of her own identity and sense of history. Deeply researched and reported, Murder in Matera is a remarkable true story about one family’s hidden secrets. It is also a powerful and timeless story of immigration and motherhood—a profound testament to how far one woman would go in search of a better life in America, not only for herself, but for her children and the preservation of her family.

Rating: 4/5

Review:

Before we start one must know what a memoir is. Though you would find it unnecessary of me to write about something you already know, I am adding it in case someone doesn’t know clearly.

A memoir (US: /ˈmemwɑːr/; from French: mémoire: memoria, meaning memory or reminiscence) is a collection of memories that an individual writes about moments or events, both public or private, that took place in the subject’s life. The assertions made in the work are understood to be factual. A memoir can also be about generations old facts, about one’s ancestors and their time. It is to be noted that memoirs often contains excerpts of one’s ancestor’s narration of their own time but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is untrue. It simply means the author had researched well and was confident enough to structure an ancient event for the better understanding of the reader. Memoir is a non-fiction though this certain structure can often to referred to as fictional representation of the non-fiction.

I have always been interested in learning about foreign lands, their cultures, their history, long forgotten strands of customary family histories, passed down generation after generation without any documented information or remains. Southern Italy has a history of being frequently invaded and considerably less noticed upon than Northern Italy leading to massive economic and resource crisis, malnutrition, disease and huge percentage of child death so much so that the children were baptised right after birth so that they didn’t die without an identity.

Matera is a city in the province of Matera in the region of Basilicata, in Southern Italy. It is the capital of the province of Matera and was the capital of the province of Basilicata from 1663 to 1806. The town lies in a small canyon carved out by the Gravina. The area of what is now Matera has been settled since the Palaeolithic. The city was allegedly founded by the Romans in the 3rd century BC, with the name of Matheola after the consul Lucius Caecilius Metellus. In AD 664 Matera was conquered by the Lombards and became part of the Duchy of Benevento. Anne Parmly Toxey writes that “The date of Matera’s founding is debated; however, the revered work of the city’s early chroniclers provides numerous, generally accepted accounts of Goth, Longobard, Byzantine, and Saracen sieges of the city beginning in the eighth century and accelerating through the ninth century CE.” In the 7th and 8th centuries the nearby grottos were colonised by both Benedictine and Basilian monastic institutions. The 9th and 10th centuries were characterised by the struggle between the Byzantines and the German emperors, including Louis II, who partially destroyed the city. After the settlement of the Normans in Apulia, Matera was ruled by William Iron-Arm from 1043.

After a short communal phase and a series of pestilences and earthquakes, the city in the 15th century became an Aragonese possession, and was given in fief to the barons of the Tramontano family. In 1514, however, the population rebelled against the oppression and killed Count Giovanni Carlo Tramontano. In the 17th century Matera was handed over to the Orsini and then became part of the Terra d’Otranto, in Apulia. Later it was capital of the province of Basilicata, a position it retained until 1806, when Joseph Bonaparte assigned it to Potenza.

In 1927 it became capital of the brand-new province of Matera.

Helene Stapinski has since childhood heard stories from her mother and other relatives about their ancestral roots at Matera and how her great-great-grandmother Vita had travelled from there to America with her two sons alone and settled down in a complete foreign land, having run away from a murder committed likely by herself and her husband, Francesco Vena. Troubled by the criminal background of her ancestors and believing her family’s s criminal inclinations to be an effect of corrupted gene, she decides to visit Matera herself and figure out the truth of the crime, with the hope that the knowledge of truth would help her prevent her next generation and the others to follow from walking the same path, to uproot the disease from it’s exact source. She travels for the first time with her mother and two children, with her husband too busy to join her and begins her search, but ends up with time running out of her hand, her children getting effected by the rough climatic and structural foundation of the place, and with threat from her possible relations there from ruining the sleep of the already dead and forgotten people. She returns home with a heavy heart only to return ten years later, fully prepared, gathering over the ten years every information about the place that she could come across, and contacting necessary people to help her out. Finally she slowly and gradually starts peeling off layers of secrets and history, which leads her to the discovery of truth behind her family’s identity, her own identity and filthy socialistic traditions and terrors. She learn about the cruelty of power and harsh livelihood, of poverty and social acceptance there in Matera. She unrobes the centuries old inhumane power-hungry manifestation and discovers the true Vita who no one ever cared to understand or believe.

Murder in Matera is an informative, well arranged and descriptive piece of work with extensive knowledge of the writer about the subjected place and true exploration. The presentation of the book clearly shows the laborious research of Helene and her hunger to know about her family history. The author has beautifully brought in the tale of Adam and Eve, winding in every vein of her story giving it a life, a life so vibrant it pokes at the reader’s mind, finding meaning to their omnipresence in every inch of a human being. Helene has portrayed her true self, neither a non-believer, not a blind believer, just a faulty human with curiosity and motherly affection.

Original, raw, superfluous, educational and intriguing, the book makes one think about lands farther from their ever wandering eyes, out from the era of technology and abundance of resources to a time of predominating hunger and regular death by starvation, which seems not to have been forgotten but prevented from remembrance for the love of one’s own peace of living. Helene brought to life the dead and their deeds and their handpicked olives, their nurtured grape wines.

Would recommend everyone to read it especially if you are interested to know about Southern Italy and the influence of the Greeks that thoroughly structured the civilisation of Matera.

About the Author:

Helene Stapinski is the author of Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History, which recounts her family’s criminal history, and Baby Plays Around: A Love Affair, with Music, which chronicles her years playing drums in a rock band in Manhattan. She has written extensively for the New York Times as well as for New York magazine, Salon, Travel & Leisure, and dozens of other publications and essay collections. On the documentary based on Five-Finger Discount, she has worked as a producer and writer. Stapinski has been a radio newscaster in Alaska; has appeared on National Public Radio; was a featured performer with The Moth; has lectured at her alma mater, Columbia University; and has taught at Fordham University. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children.

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