Lou Drofenik: The Reluctant Healer
Horizons 2018

Lou Drofenik’s name has become well-known in Maltese literary scene and especially for her eloquent womanist and even feminist voice that passionately echoes the embodied frames of mind of many women.

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One can even say that her prolific writing (nine novels so far) emerges with her frequent travels to Malta from Australia to where she migrated in 1962. Her very own movements translate into a diasporic literary genre that intersects the intense experiences of migrants returning to their country of birth with those that are specifi­cally related to women, migrant or native.

Michel de Certeau states that “every story is a travel story”, yet as Drofenik’s writings point out, stories cannot disregard the gender markings of those who travel. The perspectives of women in Drofenik’s The Reluctant Healer are fluid and changing knowledges, those of whom the philosopher Christine Battersby refers to as “bodies that bleed”.

Drofenik’s traversing between the two continents engenders the story of Laura, a myotherapist whose return to the island of her birth, Gozo, reveals the healing potential in finding one’s place in one’s own female genealogy.

The search of one’s origins is always painful, but like the pains of birth, possibili­ties of new and different lives open up. Laura’s reluctance to heal Nina, Tessie and Stella, the women who befriend her is as unsuccessful as her own attempts to find a restful space in the peaceful island of Gozo.

Her determination to design her own pathway in life only leads her to tread into the unknown. Her inherited urge to heal and the voices that reveal future events weave a most unexpected heirloom.

Laura’s search for who she is and who her ancestors were, however private it may seem, is never a solitary endeavour. She soon realises that in her search for her roots she becomes entangled in a network where everyone is related to everyone else.

The love relationship she develops with Tony, a close friend at the time she was living in Malta as a child, brings all the threads of her relatedness to her sister, mother and grandmother together. Her love story does not feature as prominently as her growing relationships with the significant women in her life.

It is typical of people who live in a very small island to make it their business to get to know one another. This makes it all the more important for some that secrets remain untold.

However, even if all the forgetting is unintentionally aimed at the protection of the young and the innocent, the truth of the past that lies between the very stones of their dwellings has to be revealed. It is impossible for the memories not be carved out to give opportunities for women who would like to take responsibility for their futures rather than rely on the mercy of the miraculous.

In this novel, the lives of some characters of the subplot end abruptly, the completion of others remains unknown while that of others are dealt with in a fleeting manner.

Whether this is done on purpose, for the readers to imagine their own conclusion, is hard to tell. Nevertheless, these sub-stories do make readers deliberate the kind of resolution to their problematic situa­tions the characters deserve. It is as if readers are called on to draw on their ethical baggage, perhaps also to question the unfair judgments on women who ran the risks of being deceived and ruined by unscrupulous men.

The chapters that make up The Reluctant Healer are as short as Laura’s excursions in the scorching sun of Maltese summer, some of them as abrupt as the turnings of some narrow streets of a Gozi­tan village. The quick succession of events contrasts with the slow-moving scenarios of a typical summer day. They intertwine to bring in the unexpected links between past and present, the complex relations between the characters.

Drofenik’s detailed descriptions of the landscape and the metaphors that create the particularities of life and love have the makings of exquisite Gozitan lace. Like a piece of Gozitan lace, it has to be seen and touched to be really enjoyed, this novel too has to be read to understand the pleasure of inquiring into the meanings of the complex webs of life.

Ramona Depares will be conducting a one-on-one interview with Lou Drofenik today at 7pm at the Malta Book Festival, at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta.

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