Elena Ferrante is already something of an Italian legend. An author said to spurn interviews, her pen name fuelling speculation about her real identity. Her work is said to be autobiographical and already capturing the attention of English readers in a similar way to the autobiographical series of novels by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Being a fan of translated fiction I have had my eye on this series for a while and from the reviews and articles I have read, her work reminds me of Caroline Smailes, whose excellent novel The Drowning of Arthur Braxton was my favourite read in 2013.
In 2012, My Brilliant Friend, the first in the trilogy of Neapolitan novels was translated into English and the two subsequent books The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay were published in 2013 and 2014 consecutively.
The trilogy follows the lives and friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two astute girls from a
downtrodden suburbslum of post war 1950’s & 1960’s Naples, as they navigate the challenges and opportunities necessary to survive and overcome their upbringing.
My Brilliant Friend spans Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence years in their neighbourhood, one where aggression, tension and feuds reign and graduating from school is less of a priority than finding safety and protection from the inhabitants of their immediate environment.
The first pages begin with the naming of characters, a family tree of the neighbourhood, members of each family and their occupations. I often find these lists of characters overwhelming, so ignored them, telling myself, if the book is good, I’ll know who all these characters are by the end. And when I went back to look at it, sure enough, I knew who they all were.
The story then begins with a prologue when the girls are women in their mid-fifties and creates a mystery that won’t be resolved in the first book, as the girls only reach the age of sixteen by its conclusion. It intrigues and teases the reader to continue to read on and discover what it is Elena knows, that no one else does.
“It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means.”
Elena is angry and so begins to write this narrative, in an act of revenge-like competitiveness, a trait that has defined her relationship with Lila throughout their childhood and adolescence.
Narrated from the point of view of Elena, the girls first recollection of being together is around the fearful presence of Don Achille, the local grocer whose name is associated with a fairy tale ogre.
In their play, Lila’s actions are always decisive and with bold intent, Elena is less bold, yet more determined, she follows her friend but wishes to surpass her and learns how to cope with the sacrifices necessary to continue to be her friend. Starting with the day Lila dropped her doll through the street grating into a dark underground cellar.
“But that day I learned a skill at which I later excelled. I held back my despair, I held it back on the edge of my wet eyes, so that Lila said to me in dialect:
‘You don’t care about her?’
I didn’t answer. I felt a violent pain, but I sensed that the pain of quarrelling with her would be even stronger. I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila.”
After her early years of passing well her exams, there is one year when Elena’s attention strays and as a result her parents are no longer willing to support her in school. They won’t pay for extra tuition but if she studies and resits the exams, they will allow her to continue.
Lila, who never fails, will have to leave school, regardless of her ability, her family isn’t willing to support her education. She has a hunger for education and follows Elena’s progress, increasing her knowledge, surpassing her friend, becoming more like her teacher, though never sitting another exam.
“She had begun to study Greek even before I went to high school? She had done it on her own, while I hadn’t even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?”
The book ends with a wedding, the girls paths seem to be heading in different directions, they continue to navigate their lives according to the expectations and threats of their community, yet their paths, in their different ways, potentially hold the seeds of their escape.
My Brilliant Friend is an emotionally charged coming-of-age read and the story held me riveted all the way through from the prologue that isn’t resolved through their early schooldays up to that wedding day.
Ferrante’s depiction of the two girls friendship bristles with vulnerable authenticity, igniting our curiosity in their interactions with their community, making the reader care about what will happen to them all next.
Next Book in the Series: The Story of a New Name