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Book Review: Mezza Italiana by Zoe Boccabella

This was a delightful book that is part travel story, part a very personal narrative of self-discovery, that the author Zoe Boccabella (beautiful mouth in Italian) shares with us. Having been born in Australia when assimilation was at the fore, and anything that smacked of difference or Otherness was hidden, Zoe was ashamed (much to her nonno and nonna’s chagrin) of her Italian half – the paternal side. This is how the title of the book, which translates as ‘half Italian’ originates. It’s not until she’s an adult and makes her first of many trips to Italy with her boyfirend (who later becomes her husband) and visits her grandparents’ home town of Fossa, that Zoe begins to reconcile her two halves.
Drawing from not only her family’s interesting past as some of the first Italian migrants in Queensland, who made a huge impact on Brisbane with their enthusiasm and support for other migrants and their joy in Australia, but also her Australian side and, later, her roots in Italy, this book is a warm and fascinating pastiche of two cultures, generations, and a melding of past and present. Full of curious facts and insights into Italy, as well as being sprinkled with delicious recipes, you don’t have to be either Italian or Australian to enjoy this book. It doesn’t hold back from dealing with death, different cultural customs or exploring how they’re perceived either. That Boccabella analyses all these as well, including the way she deals with and understands them, is testimony to her powers as a writer and someone with a professional interest in stories and attitudes to what she calls the nationality of ‘migrancy.’

I do confess, however, that as a half and half myself, who also grew up during the same period, I really related to Zoe’s story. Instead of embracing my mother’s and grandmother’s rich Israeli and German heritage, I not only ‘lost’ my first language (Hebrew), but regret, like Zoe, that I didn’t learn more when I had the opportunity. The fact I am also, like Zoe’s husband, an Italia-phile who is immersing herself in all things Italian, such as studying the language and history and have even set my latest novels in Venice (a fantasy version, but basically true to the former Republic nonetheless), may have enhanced my reading pleasure of this book – but they’re not responsible for the fact it’s a terrific read.

But, as I said above, you don’t have to have those experiences or upbringing to enjoy this book. It has everything – romance, drama, pathos and tragedy as well as many humorous anecdotes. An easy, lovely tale that I can warmly recommend.

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