By JENNIFER MALONEY
Ferrante fans, turn on your night lights. In December, Elena Ferrante’s U.S. publisher will release her dark, fable-like children’s book, told from the perspective of a lost doll.
Called “The Beach at Night,” it is 38 pages long and aimed at readers aged 6 to 10. But the Italian author, whose best-selling Neapolitan novels present a brutal depiction of childhood, doesn’t sugarcoat things for young readers.
“The Beach at Night” is a spinoff of “The Lost Daughter,” one of the author’s lesser-known early novels, in which a teacher goes on vacation in a coastal town and steals a doll from a child. In “The Beach at Night,” the doll isn’t stolen. Instead, she is abandoned by her young owner to face nighttime terrors such as the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset and his friend, the Big Rake.
The book includes 12 eerie color illustrations by Italian artist Mara Cerri.
“It’s certainly no scarier than a ‘Hansel and Gretel’,” said Michael Reynolds, editor in chief of Europa Editions, the U.S. publisher.
“A Beach Attendant arrives, I don’t like his eyes,” the doll says, according to a sample translation reviewed by the Wall Street Journal. “He folds up the big beach umbrellas, the chaises. I see the hairs of his mustache moving over his lips like lizards’ tails.”
Celina, the doll in the children’s book, is not directly connected to the Neapolitan novels. And it ends happily—in contrast to her adult books. But the story does shed light on the author’s fascination with the theme of the lost doll. “My Brilliant Friend,” the first installment of the four-part Neapolitan series, opens with a scene in which the narrator and her friend lose a pair of dolls. That scene turns out to be a pivotal one for understanding the entire series.
Ferrante is an enigmatic figure. Her real identity is a closely-held secret. Her Neapolitan novels have sold 1.2 million copies worldwide in English translations alone, Reynolds said. Ann Goldstein, who translated the series, will translate “The Beach at Night” as well as “Frantumaglia,” a collection of interviews and other writings by Ferrante set for release in the U.S. in November.
“The Beach at Night” was published in Italy in 2007, well before the author had achieved superstar status. The reception there was tepid, Reynolds said.
“I’m not sure people knew at the time what to do with it,” he said. “Booksellers may be were a bit perplexed.”
It will be released in Italy again this year, he said. This time, Ferrante’s publishers anticipate a warmer response. Reynolds said he expects U.S. bookstores to display “The Beach at Night” in children’s sections as well as alongside the Neapolitan series.
The sample translation reviewed by the Journal includes a four-letter expletive in a song sung by the Mean Attendant of Sunset.
Asked if the word would be changed, Reynolds said, “I should think so.”
Then he quipped: “Though you never know what Elena is going to insist on.”