I’d resisted Tina De Rosa’s Paper Fish for years, picking it up and then putting it down again because it felt like a closed system. Something about its fragility put me off as well; there was so much New York City noise in my head that the prose almost felt like scraps of lace to me. Finally I committed to it—having finished a manuscript, I was able to be still for a moment—and found it a rare, beautiful work. Melancholy and elegiac, but also intensely disciplined, its words chosen with the precision of a poet.
It strikes me that De Rosa’s prose slows down time. There’s nothing predictable about her language (nor its cadences, even with the stream-of-consciousness comma-spliced sentences). Because it’s so singular, it’s as if the prose is also making a larger point about assumptions people might bring to Italian-American narratives, blasting clichés to hell—by its very form, proving that the people in this story are specific, consequential, and deserving of respect.
Briefly put, this slender novel is about a young Italian-American girl called Carmolina coming of age in Chicago’s West Side in the 1940s/1950s, but so much of the book is about its mood. It evokes a kind of childhood dream state; the time is fluid, the tenses are fluid, and it washes from present to past to a further and further past, and then washes back again. Throughout, though, there’s an intensity of description, of the smells and textures and tastes—it evokes a lost Chicago of horse carts, straw streetcar seats, vegetable wagons, drafty cold-water flats, the seedman who blows a metal horn to summon the children with their nickels to buy his pistachio nuts. Even when the point of view floats into the heads of other characters, there’s a powerful subjectivity about it, and the dream state of the book seems to be only broken in a scene at the police precinct, where the prose becomes much more conventional—Carmolina has run away from home, and it’s as if the prose marks her absence. For me, there’s also much bittersweet familiarity in the way the grandmother’s speech is rendered (“Her face, she so beautiful”) and in forgotten things from another era, like your grandmother making you a bowl of pastina, or odd bits of folklore, such as how drinking something cold might make your teeth melt. Or “folktales” woven around disabilities that do not rob the disabled of their specificity and worth, but reframe them with a mysterious dignity.
There’s such a beautiful will toward communicating this lost world in the book, and for all its poeticism, very little preciousness. The last pages, which recall a memory of Carmolina with her grandmother Doria at the circus, are tremendously moving. I was sad to see this book end, but it didn’t seem to end so much as recede into my memory.
Paper Fish all but disappeared shortly after it was published by a small press in 1980, and it came back into print again in 1996 through the Feminist Press and, from what I’ve read, because of the personal ministrations of Fred Gardaphé—praise them all. My edition has a rich, authoritative afterward by Edvige Giunta.
Tina De Rosa died in 2007. I wish I’d read this book while she was still alive so that I could have written her a note of appreciation. As it is, it’s a great pleasure to recommend this extraordinary, heartfelt book.