101 Great Reads

The story of a new name by Elena Ferrante (Europa)


“In the spring of 1966, Lila in a state of great agitation, entrusted to me a metal box that contained eight notebooks”.

NEW readers do not start here. The second part of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan passionatas is not a sequel, just the next chapter, the explosive repercussions post the wedding as the girls run their new found sexuality up against brooding, entrenched towers of machismo.

We are in a full fury. Two new shops are to be built. Leila hovers between narcissistic muse and volcanic evil. Nerdy, bespectacled Lina is torn between her true love and her lover, between her friend’s adult freedoms and new wealth and her own striving with academia and poverty. She takes her first (luxurious) bath.

And behind all this we feel the shadowy politics of Naples. We are reminded that Don Achille was perhaps murdered by a woman, that Stefano was always the actor, that others are also being swept up in a torrent of hormones. The Solaras have the money and connections while looming for the other boys is a different kind of purgatory, conscription into an Italian army representing just what at this stage in Italian history – the re-built state, a re-run of fascism, a police to a settlement that has its own laws of omertà?

“The months ahead were packed with small events that tormented me a great deal,” Lina declares as she moves through each mood, each shift of politic, each emotional re-alignment, each dilemma aggrandising the petty into this great opera of four books. The scale here is Proust or Balzac which is to say any small detail can assume an import as much as another. Through this, fittingly, the plot has more than a few eye-popping twists.

The deliciousness is all in the detail, the sense of capturing a time, of the emergence of the girls, of the sheer excitement of their presences, being a part of their world, their sisterhood, of living each moment with them, daft, cruel, spontaneous, spiteful, of their femininity, told as it were like a great, uncontainable gush of tenement gossip while each incident resonates through a band of families and a wider society.

The girls are intertwined but opposites, the product of the tenement, the post war scramble to make something of themselves, a determined duo.

Not speaking Italian well enough I am curious of the sub text in which they speak in dialect, in Neapolitan, in higher Italian which doubtless infers more subtleties which is only referred to in translation, but also oddly why, in what is after all a beautifully translated book, the title was changed from the Italian where it is literally a Bad Name.

NB: The final book of the four The Story of the Lost Child has been listed for the first Booker International prize.