The Beach at Night by Elena Ferrante; translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein; illustrations by Mara Cerri; Europa editions; 40 pages, $13.
Anyone familiar with the legendary Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (beginning with “My Brilliant Friend”) will not be surprised to discover her illustrated fable, “The Beach at Night,” to be an intense, surprising, gritty, mysterious and frequently terrifying business and not exactly a story many would consider “suitable” for children.
The haunting, evocative illustrations begin with the cover image of a lifelike doll, apparently staring in horror on a littered, darkening beach. The tale is narrated by the doll, Celina, who has been left behind at the beach, forgotten by her owner and apparently replaced in the girl’s affection by her new pet cat. Celina is seething with jealousy (“I hope he has diarrhea and vomits and stinks so much that Mati is grossed out and gets rid of him”) and is suffering acutely from feelings of abandonment and loss.
Then the Mean Beach Attendant arrives with his Big Rake to comb the sand for debris – and possibly treasure – and Celina finds herself in dire physical peril. (For a sense of Ferrante’s gritty style, here is the attendant’s song, complete with expletive: “Open your maw, I’ve sh—for your craw, Drink up the pee, Drink it for me.” In another scene, boys are trying to see girls’ underwear and pee on their feet.) Celina is threatened by fire, by the sea, and most terribly, by the theft of her words including her own name, when rescue comes from a very surprising source.
This is a strangely compelling tale that will be of great interest to Ferrante fans, and marks a return, the author notes on her website, to a story that animated “The Lost Daughter,” the novel she considers to be a “turning point” in her development as a writer. – Jean Westmoore