by Anbara Salam
Berkley. 336 pages, $26.
THE TITLE is intriguing. Bella donna means “beautiful woman” in Italian and is ultimately derived from the Indo-European term for blossom. By the 16th century, “belladonna” as a single word meant nightshade, a poisonous plant with glossy berries, the juice of which was used to dilate women’s eyes for cosmetic effect. The same plant yields medicinal extracts that can block the nervous system to allay motion sickness. Consuming belladonna can kill you, but its extract might settle your nausea. Right from the start, the title of this engrossing coming-of-age novel implies love’s potential for both healing and upsetting.
Author Anbara Salam grew up in London, studied in Beirut and York, England, and earned a doctorate in theology at Oxford, where she is currently a research associate. She’s the daughter of a Scottish mother and Palestinian father and the great-granddaughter of feminist author and translator Anbara Salam Khalidi, reportedly the first Muslim woman in Lebanon to remove her hijab in public. Belladonna is Salam’s second novel.
Much of the story takes place at an art academy in northern Italy, with intersecting scenes in coastal Connecticut.
Rosemary Booth is a writer and photographer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.