The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Europa Editions £11.99

Review by Teresa Waugh


One of the first things I heard about the mysterious Elena Ferrante – before I had read any of her novels – was that she might be a man. A mere glance at a few pages of her writing makes this hypothesis seem unlikely.

A while back my curiosity led me to search the internet for a clue as to her real identity – and indeed I came across an Italian article in which the writer claimed categorically that Elena Ferrante, a woman in her late sixties, was married to a named Milanese publisher. I can no longer find the reference; only the statement that some items have been removed for data protection, all of which feeds my suspicion, that like Roberto Saviano, her fellow Neapolitan and scourge of the Camorra, she is persona non grata with the Naples Mafia whose tentacles now stretch right across Italy.

Or, like Flaubert, Ferrante wishes posterity to believe that the artist ‘has not lived’. Or perhaps like the great Sicilian novelist, Giovanni Verga, she simply wishes that the hand of the writer remain invisible.

Whatever the truth, ‘Elena Ferrante’ is the pseudonym under cover of which she has achieved international fame, but it can only be a matter of time before she is outed. Meanwhile, in the introduction to her three earlier novels included in the Cronache del mal d’Amore the Spanish academic, Edgardo Dobry, compares her, poor woman, to Beckett, Virginia Woolf and Henry James whilst also claiming that she creates the suffocating atmosphere of an American police thriller.

Don’t let that put you off; she is in fact a wonderful, racy, warm, observant, clever story-teller with a masterly ability to bring her characters to life, whose novels, like all good novels, can be read on many levels.

The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth volume of the Neapolitan quartet, brings up to the present the story of a friendship between two women which began in the 1950s when they lived as small girls in the same poor quarter of Naples.

The narrator, Elena Greco, is the clever eldest child of a porter at the City Hall. Elena – usually known as Lenù or Lenuccia – at an early age forms a bond with Lila (also called Lina), a shoemaker’s daughter whom she admires for her daring and her flare. (My Brilliant Friend).

Despite the often fraught relationship that develops between the two throughout the novels (each of which can be read separately), the women remain linked by their past, their passions, their jealousy, their respect for one another and their love.

From start to finish Lila is mesmerising– not only to Lenù, but to the reader. She must be one of the most dazzling, captivating, characters in contemporary literature; talented and imaginative, she acknowledges no law but her own.

In the second book (The Story of a New Name) Lila, newly married at the tender age of sixteen and raped by her husband on her wedding night, mercilessly seduces the beautiful boy with whom she knows Lenù to be in love. It is the most searing account of teenage heedlessness. Yet it is not this that initially separates the two girls.

Our serious, academic narrator who dreams of being a writer, studies hard and eventually goes away to university in Pisa where she takes a lover with whom she travels abroad. She publishes a novel, moves into the literary world, marries an academic and has two daughters. (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay). But the bond between the two women remains as strong as ever despite the different paths they have taken.

For all the drama of the two women’s separate lives, it is Naples that comes across as the protagonist of the saga: the frightening atmosphere of the rione where the girls are brought up and to which Lenù repeatedly returns, the tunnel to the smarter part of town, the Mediterranean which only the well-to-do can see from their flats with Vesuvius looming in the back ground – and of course the hold the city has over those who are born there.

In the mid-nineties Lenù again leaves Naples. Much foreign money had been invested there but the new buildings soon lost their lustre to become ‘dens for the desperate’.

Ferrante grippingly describes life in the rione – the vendettas, the love affairs, , the threatening criminality, the drug addicton, the politics, the warmth, the vitality and the treachery of those who live there. Every character is vividly portrayed and, as time goes by we learn of their various fates.

The novels could be read as a political history of Italy in the second half of the twentieth century – there are the working class communist cells, the fascist brutes still around, the Christian Democrats, the academic communists and of course the trimmers. And there is the crippling dishonesty of those in power. Or they could be read as a feminist tract with Lila and Lenù both fighting for their independence and both, to a certain extent, and at a cost, finding it.

Italian is not an easy language to translate into English and much credit must be given to Ann Goldstein for a mammoth achievement.

In whatever language, this quartet is a must for anyone who loves Italy or anyone remotely interested in the human predicament.