Book review: Belladonna, by Anbara Salam

Fifties soulmates escape to a beautifully described but strangely flat world in Anbara Salam’s coming-of-age novel
Anbara SalamAnbara Salam
Anbara Salam

Anbara Salam has a talent for places, and in this age of lockdown, the half-Scottish author’s ability to transport the reader first to a 1950s Connecticut high school, then on to an Italian convent, is more welcome than ever.

Her coming-of-age novel Belladonna tells the story of 15-year-old Catholic girl Bridget, who meets exotic new classmate Isabella and is immediately enchanted. Isabella is dramatically different to the rest of Bridget’s world. Recently recovered from a bout of malaria, she has a feverish glamour about her which captivates the restless teenager.

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Together, after graduation, they embark on a programme which takes the pair to Italy for a year, where they live with other American girls in a convent and learn about Italian art and culture.

The school scenes and the way in which they are described are at times reminiscent of a historical version of Curtis Sittenfeld’s brilliant Prep, yet somehow I always felt slightly dissatisfied with Belladonna.

Salam’s writing is carefully crafted, however the characterisation somehow lacks the emotional depth required to really draw in the reader. Shocking things happen to Bridget, yet they are passed over with little feeling or passion.

Events which would have been highly unusual for an ordinary American girl in the 1950s – even her decision to spend a year living in Italy after graduating from high school – are barely remarked upon either by Bridget herself, or by other characters. Similarly, the modern relationships depicted in the novel are accepted in a very offhand and careless way for the era.

When Bridget’s infatuation with Isabella results in a steamy encounter at a party before the pair embark on their trip across the Atlantic, for example, the moment is hardly mentioned again, nor is it dwelled upon by Bridget herself, despite her apparent infatuation with her friend.

Throughout the novel, Bridget’s older sister, Rhona, appears to be ill, yet neither what her illness is, nor her prognosis, seem to matter, either to Bridget or anyone else. Rhona, who is an almost ethereal character throughout the book, drifting from family dinner table to bedroom to hospital with barely a word, suddenly appears in Italy in the final chapters as a human character with a future ahead of her and more personality than we have seen anywhere else so far, probing her sister about her life and offering sisterly advice.

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I wonder whether this flatness is intended to give the impression that Bridget – who has struggled with her own sense of belonging as a mixed-race American in a white world – is depressed? Uninterested in her own life? Perhaps. Yet, for all Salam’s talent for place and description, this novel left me feeling flat.

Belladonna, by Anbara Salam, Fig Tree, £14.99

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