The print and audio publishers of Elena Ferrante’s dark, new picture book can’t agree on whether it is appropriate for children or not.
“The Beach at Night” will be released in English on Nov. 1. Europa Editions, the author’s U.S. publisher, lists the picture book as juvenile. Blackstone Audio, which announced Tuesday that Natalie Portmanwould narrate the audiobook, added a warning that it is for adults only.
“This is an audiobook for adult Ferrante fans,” Blackstone spokeswoman Lauren Maturo wrote in an email to journalists. “Because of the mature and sometimes disturbing themes and language, we do not recommend that children listen to this story.”
Ferrante’s bestselling “My Brilliant Friend,” the first installment in her Neapolitan Quartet, presents a brutal depiction of childhood. The author’s picture book, first published in Italy in 2007, is no less disturbing. The book’s eerie illustrations are by Mara Cerri.
A doll is abandoned at the beach by her young owner. As night descends, she faces terrors including the Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset and his friend, who tries to pry the words from her mouth. The attendant sings a song that includes profanity:
Open your maw
I’ve shit for your craw
Drink up the pee
Drink it for me
Sh-h-h! Not a word
Only traps are heard
Peace will come
If we all play dumb.
Europa’s editor in chief, Michael Reynolds, told Speakeasy in March that the book was aimed for ages 6 to 10, and noted that it was no scarier than “Hansel and Gretel.” On Tuesday, he said that on the recommendation of Europa’s distributor, the book now has a no age recommendation. Europa lists the book as “psychological” under juvenile fiction.
“I think most stores will shelve it with Ferrante’s other books after its stint on tables,” Reynolds said. The picture book will be released simultaneously with the English version of “Frantumaglia,” Ferrante’s collection of interviews and letters.
Asked about Blackstone’s warning that the audiobook isn’t appropriate for children, Reynolds said: “The audiobook publisher decides their own classification.”
The theme of the lost doll is central to the Neapolitan Quartet, from the opening pages of “My Brilliant Friend” to the surprise ending of the final installment, “The Story of the Lost Child.” The picture book predates that series. It is a spinoff of Ferrante’s third novel, “The Lost Child,” which also involves a lost doll.
When “The Beach at Night” was released in Italy, Ferrante’s Italian publisher classified it as a children’s book. It didn’t make much of a splash, Reynolds said. Now he hopes it will appeal to fans of the Neapolitan Quartet, which has sold 2.5 million copies in English around the world.
Listen to an excerpt of Natalie Portman reading from “The Beach at Night”:
Lysa Williams, acquisitions editor for Blackstone, called the category question “a good one and a complex one.”
“In my early conversations with Europa I had the understanding that this title would not be sold as children’s literature due to some language and a somewhat frightening cast to the experience of the doll left behind,” Williams said in an email. “I stuck with my feelings from the first conversation, knowing that her audience is primarily adult and that this title informs ‘The Story of the Lost Child.’”
Portman – “a big fan of Elena Ferrante’s novels,” according to Blackstone – narrates the audio version in ominous and frightened tones amid sound effects evoking waves and a rake scraping the sand. The audiobook will be available for download on Nov. 1 at Downpour.com.
The pseudonymous author, who for two decades has kept her identity secret, made headlines this month when an article published by the New York Review of Books presented evidence that she is Rome-based translator Anita Raja. The controversy caused a spike in sales of the Neapolitan Quartet. For the first time this year, Ferrante appeared on the list of Nobel contenders maintained by U.K.-based betting site Ladbrokes. She was given 50/1 odds, level with Bob Dylan and short-story writer Lydia Davis.