Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw
In The Twelfth Room, Italian novelist Teresa Antonacci invites readers into the extraordinary life of Alina, a young girl with striking red hair and green eyes, whose remarkable abilities become apparent at the age of two. From precocious reading and numeracy skills to a keen, almost surgical observation of the world, Alina's atypical childhood is described with compassionate depth. This is a story about autism, told from a fresh and engaging perspective that eschews the clinical coldness often associated with the condition.
The narrative unfolds against the charming backdrop of the town of Polignano on Italy's southern Adriatic coast. Abandoned by her father, who could not cope with her eccentricities, Alina bonds with her grandfather Giuseppe as they explore the picturesque alleys and rocky coastline of Polignano. The innocence and curiosity of Alina's early years, along with her unique relationship with her grandfather, provide a fascinating insight into the girl's unique perspective on life.
A turning point comes with the introduction of Nicola, whose socially unconventional love for Alina becomes a catalyst for her growth into womanhood. What attracts her to Nicola, a much older and married man, will indeed be controversial for many and simply unacceptable for some, even an obstacle, if not a showstopper, for some readers to enjoy the novel. After all, Alina is still a teenager—fatherless, vulnerable, and autistic when they meet—and Nicola mistakenly believes she is already a young adult. Antonacci goes to great lengths to develop this relationship, which begins with the seduction of a minor, into an extraordinary story of love and friendship. This is told against the background of Alina's emotional journey through Asperger's syndrome, depression, and anorexia. Perhaps, stirring up controversy is the author's intention, as her story directly challenges societal norms and emphasizes the importance of accepting individual diversity. The Twelfth Room dismantles the concept of 'normality' and urges readers to embrace the uniqueness of each individual.
Unique to the narrative is Antonacci's perspective on Asperger's Syndrome as a blessing in disguise, based on her firsthand experience of working with autistic people. The novel provocatively challenges stereotypes and presents a nuanced view of the syndrome that encourages understanding and empathy.
The universal themes of acceptance and love resonate throughout the novel, transcending the specifics of Alina's journey. Antonacci skillfully champions a society that appreciates the sincerity and affection of people with autism, free from societal nuance. And the story forgives a man who falls in love with a woman thirty years his junior.
The prose is a testament to Antonacci's storytelling skills, with a light and sweet quality reminiscent of a child's caress. The vivid descriptions evoke the sensory richness of Alina's world, from the narrow alleys of Polignano to the bustling streets of Milan and Paris.
The Twelfth Room is not just a story; it is an instructive guide, challenging the reader to reflect on the intense and schematic life experiences of people with Asperger's syndrome.
Teresa Antonacci's storytelling, combined with Connie Guzzo-McParland's translation, creates a narrative that is both compelling and thought-provoking—a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the intricacies of Asperger's Syndrome and the universal quest for acceptance.
The Twelfth Room is published by Guernica Editions.