The Guardian

My hero: Elena Ferrante by Margaret Drabble

Naples in the early 1960s.

Elena Ferrante’s novels have a driving and unconventional narrative power that has gripped readers across a wide cultural range. Mostly set in Naples, they evoke a city of beauty and violence, and tell stories of aspiration, defeat, birth, sex, death and ambition – thrillers without the vulgarity of contrived plots and sensational crimes.

They do have their literary contrivances; her acclaimed quartet abounds in cleverly deployed postmodern devices such as alter egos, lost texts, recurrent motifs and destroyed manuscripts, but the human interest is so overwhelming that we read on, volume after volume, hardly noticing the sophistication of the narration.

The books are passionate rather than playful, and, unusually, the last of the quartet The Story of the Lost Child, which has just been longlisted for the Man Booker International prize, is the best. She writes with embarrassing frankness about female sexuality and its contradictory impulses, describing jealousy and ugly ordinary sex, particularly in her deeply melancholy The Days of Abandonment, with an unprecedented and shaming veracity that outdoes Doris Lessing. Is she a feminist or a sociologist, or both?

Reading her novels is to sweep through Italian and European history, through many decades of embattled politics, from the shadows of postwar fascism in the 40s and 50s, through the insurgencies and assassinations of the Red Brigade in the 70s, to the cynicism and materialism of the so-called end of history. Her characters are alive and full of impassioned contradictions; they grow old as we grow old. They betray themselves and others as we betray ourselves. Elena Greco and her friend Lila, the one who got away and the one who stays, play out an entangled drama through time. Elena is, like her creator (whoever she may be) an intensely ambitious writer: she is confused, engaged, ardent, brilliant. The range is huge: a lifetime’s oeuvre delivered in a decade.