Veronica Raimo’s novel The Girl at the Door seems to be about the #MeToo movement and its ramifications. Published in Italy in 2018 and debuting this October in English translation by Stash Luczkiw, the book tells of a pregnant woman visited one day by another young woman who claims to have been sexually assaulted by the pregnant woman’s boyfriend two years earlier. The “girl at the door” had a complicated past with the man, including rough but presumably consensual sex play. Only in retrospect does she declare that she was, in fact, the victim of rape.
The novel focuses relatively little on the victim, despite being its title character. Instead, it examines the relationship of the pregnant woman (“Her”) and the accused man (“Him”) in the weeks after the charges are made, as the community investigates his behavior.
Raimo sets her story in an alternate reality, a small country called Miden. It’s a seemingly utopian oasis in which the happiness of the citizenry is everything. The outside world has been all but destroyed by something called “The Crash,” which sounds like an economic catastrophe but perhaps was a complete political, social and environmental collapse.
While vacationing in Miden, Her met and had a fling with Him in a cannabis-suffused tent. The two outsiders, who share the same nationality, were drawn into a passionate affair. She later goes to Miden to be with him.
The novel becomes a meditation on the ways in which personal lives are absorbed into the public sphere and the ways in which that absorption can fail. As the investigation proceeds, Him and Her find that the “Miden Dream,” no matter how full of promise it seems, may not be able to accommodate them. “My girlfriend and I had turned our house into a fortress against Miden’s sinister glare,” says Him, late in the novel. (Of course, if he is found guilty of rape, a glare will be the least of his worries.)
Just how idyllic is Miden? One of the culture’s main tenets is that it must be essentially “welcoming.” The national language has been altered to make everyone feel safe and empowered. As Her explains, pet names and “diminutives” have been abolished “to keep women from being harangued in an untoward or debasing way.” So, a phrase like “poor girl” cannot be used, even to console someone who has encountered misfortune. Says Her:
Technically, there were no poor people in Miden, in the sense of indigent, because everyone had a standard of living consonant with their needs. And there were no poor in the sense of unhappy. Because the society couldn’t conceive of them.
In an earlier passage, Her notes that Miden-ites seem convinced that their DNA has a “particularly virtuous and creative genetic structure.” The idea that this utopia makes a claim to genetic supremacy seems smug, if not downright scary. What ugliness lurks in this bright and happy place?
If, in Miden, you’re found “unworthy” for some reason, you can no longer be part of the social fabric. You’ll be asked to leave. If the investigation of Him — a philosophy teacher in a local school — concludes that he was indeed a “Perpetrator,” he will be expelled from the country. At which point Her would need to decide whether she, and her soon-to-be-born child, will follow him or remain in their adopted homeland.
Him is not subject to a conventional judicial procedure. In Miden, all citizens are expected to serve on one of the many “Commissions” — panels meant to address a wide array of societal concerns. Him and Her, for instance, had volunteered for the Organic Pesticides Commission, though apparently not out of noble motivations. “It made us laugh, so we decided to join together,” Her says. It’s another of these Commissions that will determine Him’s culpability. Witnesses (including Her) are to respond to questionnaires, which are later shared with the accused before the verdict is announced.
The plot of The Girl at the Door could be presented easily in a short story. Raimo fleshes out the tale by describing in detail the interactions between Him and Her as they await the panel’s decision. They quarrel, they have sex, they quarrel some more. Together, they read the responses to the questionnaires, learning how they’ve been perceived by colleagues and casual acquaintances. Despite their mutual misery, both of them feel drawn at times to the idealistic spirit of Miden.
Her does experience fluctuating feelings about her boyfriend. She, like the accuser, experienced “violent sex” with Him, but she saw it clearly as part of their personal repertoire of kink. As time passes, however, she finds herself reevaluating the relationship.
Raimo’s narrative is structured as a series of short alternating first-person passages. We’ll get two pages from Him, then three pages from Her, and so on. Interspersed in the latter part of the novel are some of the questionnaires with responses from people looking in from the outside on the couple’s relationship. While the narrative strategy is effective, some readers may wish for longer chapters or for passages with more dramatic incident.
One of the more incident-filled sequences comes toward the novel’s end, when Him and Her — increasingly resigned to the idea of departing Miden — go into a wooded area to dispose of a roller suitcase that now symbolizes their uneasy relationship with their adopted homeland. When Her first returned to Miden to live with Him, she hadn’t been told that her style of luggage was a cultural taboo as a result noise pollution concerns. At the airport, she’d picked up a pamphlet outlining cultural no-no’s for tourists to Miden:
…[A] roller suitcase was rendered as a huge piece of luggage, all arrogant and full of itself, its two wheels endowed with spikes. My boyfriend had forgotten to warn me. I was the only one with a roller suitcase. As the wheels crossed the halls of the airport, I received only a few delicately embarrassed looks, but once I was outside, when the wheels rattled as they came in contact with the asphalt, I saw a woman plug her child’s ears and two girls wince with sudden pain.
When Him and Her enter the woods to bury the offending suitcase, they encounter a circle of Miden-ites in a group therapy session, primal-screaming to be free. When they go to dig the hole for the suitcase, a burrowing creature is killed with the spade, leaving motherless a litter of tiny, helpless offspring. It’s a haunting sequence of events, poetically rendered by Raimo and Luczkiw. It adds to the suspense about whether or not Her will cleave to Him if he is found guilty by the Commission.
Whether The Girl at the Door adds something new and important to the international discussion of sexual assault and sexual consent I’m not sure. But she certainly has a close and careful look at the fine lines that can exist between utopia and dystopia — between admiration for a culture and alienation from it.