Portrait of a Princess

Gini Alhadeff’s first book (this is her second) was a memoir called The Sun at Midday. If you have read it, then Diary of a Djinn will read more like a fantasia on some of the author’s experiences than like a novel, especially since there is no plot or continuous story, just episodes from a career very like her own. The book consists of three short sections, each set at a different stage in the life of the unnamed female first-person narrator. The djinn of the title, described as some sort of spirit within the body, speaks in the first person too, but is heard only in separate, italicized passages. It introduces itself:

A djinn skips from body to body and dies for none. The body is to a djinn its human bottle when it accepts for a time the limit of one person and one life. A spirit is locked in one for the precise purpose of undoing its knots—all the deviations on the path of blood or breath and the impulse of nerves. I wake up and come to life within its humid membranes, the palpitation of cells.

The way to undo the knots is to follow the djinn’s general creed: “No struggle, no speed, no hope, no fear.” The djinn, in fact, is a kind of built-in psychotherapeutic guru who preaches a doctrine of going with the tide; you could call it laid-back stoicism or stoical laissez-faire.

The first section of the book is set in Milan. The narrator, like Alhadeff herself, was born in Egypt into an Alexandrian Jewish family; educated at a posh Tuscan boarding school; worked in Milan for a famous fashion designer; then moved to New York. Family influence got her the fashion job. It must have been powerful, because she had only recently left school. (In Alhadeff’s case, there was an uncle married to Mariuccia, the founder and director of Krizia who, according to The Sun at Midday, “was the first woman in Italy to have a line of ready-to-wear.”) The boarding school too might have been a good preparation for a fashion adviser. There is an entertaining flashback to the narrator’s three years there among girls who thought only of how they looked: “How to wind their hair around their scalp so that it would be straight by the time it was dry. How to pluck their eyebrows. How to apply false eyelashes. How to, how to.” Life at Poggio Imperiale wasn’t at all like a soul-searching Italian version of Antonia White’s novel about girls at school, Frost in May.

Milan turns out to be a dispiriting city, smoggy, hard-working, and unfrivolous. But the narrator enjoys her job: “There was a charming mood in the studio in the first years. We would stop for long lunches at the restaurant across the street.” The narrator’s boss was famous for his jackets. They “were what the master knew how to construct, or rather, deconstruct …

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