Tony’s Reading List


As promised in my recent post on Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, it’s time to focus a little more on the role of the doll in the novel.  However, that means reluctantly vacating the blogging chair to allow an expert to take over.  You see, today’s choice is supposedly meant for kids, and when it comes to children’s literature, there’s only room for one blogger in our house – here’s Emily🙂

What’s the name of the book, and who is it by?
The book is called The Beach at Night and it’s by Elena Ferrante (and it’s translated by Ann Goldstein).

What’s it about?
It’s about a doll who gets left behind by her ‘momma’ at the beach, who then goes on many adventures to try and keep herself safe and get back home to her mum, Mati.  First, she gets swept up by the mean beach attendant’s best friend ‘rake’.  Then, she gets scared she’s going to get a fever just like her mum always tells her.  Finally, she gets washed away by the waves until she gets picked up Mati’s pet cat, Minù.

Did you like it?  Why (not)?
It was OK, not my favourite book ever.  I didn’t really like how she said everyone was a living thing, like the waves and the storm.  I also didn’t like how the mean beach attendant kept on swearing and swearing (don’t tell my Dad!).  The pictures were nice, but a bit repetitive, just her lying in the sand or the water.

What was your favourite part?
My favourite part was when Minù picked up Celina (the doll) and took her to Mati🙂

Would you recommend this book to other boys and girls?  Why (not)?
I wouldn’t recommend it to younger children because it may be a bit scary for them – plus the whole swearing thing…

Emily, thank you very much.

The Beach at Night may have been inspired by the story of the doll from The Lost Daughter, but in truth it isn’t really that closely linked.  It’s more a reimagining of the doll’s time away from the little girl, with several differences including a change of names and the addition of a brother.  What comes across very strongly is the bizarre nature of the tale as we follow the lost doll through a worrying, lonely night.

Its status as a children’s book is also fairly dubious.  While I’m not overly concerned about the use of the word ‘shit’ (which comes up in a menacing song the beach attendant sings to himself), it’s true that Ferrante uses a rather dark tone throughout the short work.  If it’s a fairy tale, it’s certainly very grim(m):

I don’t like this cat Minù, in fact I hate him.  Even his name is ugly.  I hope he has diarrhea and vomits and stinks so much that Mati is grossed out and gets rid of him.
p.12 (Europa Editions, 2016)

As Celina is pushed around the beach, escapes a fiery demise and is finally washed out to sea, any child reading could well be forgiven for wondering, as Emily did, whether this is really for kids at all.

I’d certainly agree.  Yes, the language is pitched at a fairly simple level, but there’s a lot going on underneath, with many hints of themes from The Lost Daughter.  In the constant struggles of the Beach Attendant to steal the words, including her name, hidden in Celina’s stomach (represented in Mara Cerri’s excellent illustrations as a string of light being dragged out of the doll’s mouth), you sense a concealed feminist reproach, with the poor doll denied the comfort of keeping her words inside.  Hmm – I wonder if we can tie any of this to a writer you might know who refuses to make her name public…😉

More obvious, though, is the emphasis on the bond between mother and daughter, so prevalent in The Lost Daughter.  Throughout her ordeal, Celina is firm about her connection with the little girl, Mati:

It’s damp, I’ll catch cold.  Mati always tells me: “If you catch cold, you’ll get a fever.”  She says it exactly the way her mother says it to her.  Because Mati and I are also mother and daughter. (p.12)

In The Lost Daughter, Leda observes the way the child on the beach plays with her doll, behaving as a mother would.  Here, Ferrante shows that the doll feels the same way…

The Beach at Night is an odd little book in that I’m not completely sure who it’s actually meant for, the Ferrante-loving adult reader or the juvenile bookworm.  I’m actually tending towards the former as some of the major themes here are a little subtle for kids, and because the book actually works better when read in conjunction with the parent (!) text.  Still, it’s certainly worth a look, and it makes a change (for both Emily and myself) from the usual reading fare.  The moral of the story?  Pack up carefully when you leave the beach for the day – oh, and make sure you read books before you give them to your kids😉