The year in books saw a smattering of Irish and international blockbusters, some lesser-known masterpieces and an Elena Ferrante obsession. Here, 22 leading Irish authors offer their top choices for the last 12 months
Like everyone else, I am enthralled by Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, starting with My Brilliant Friend. Beginning in 1950s’ Naples, this story of two women and the intricacies of their lives is simply unforgettable. And there are three more to read! She’s described as the best writer you’ve never heard of but her time has come this year with huge international recognition.
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante
You must have been sleeping all year if you evaded news of Ferrante. For years Ferrante’s fiction had been published to great acclaim and sold in significant quantities, especially in Italy, but globally 2015 can be called the Year of Ferrante. Lost Child, the concluding volume in the Naples quartet, came out in English translation late in the year, but by then Ferrante fever had already built up, and conversations can still be heard about which of the four books about friends Elena and Lila one should begin with. Believe it or not, many recommend starting with the second, looping back to the first, and then to the third and fourth! There is still a mystery about who Ferrante is, whether “she” is in fact a woman, and there has been much analysis about what it means to be able to remain anonymous in our hyper-wired and networked age. And sportingly, in the interviews she occasionally does, she takes the inevitable question about her “identity”, without of course giving anything away.
2015 wasn’t a spectacular reading year for me but I’ve still managed to pick ten good books from the forty-five that I read. It’s still a varied list with two non-fiction novels, two fantasy books, three modern classics and one thriller. I’m writing this post right now on my phone whilst at a beach without a laptop and with a crappy internet connection so please forgive the brief descriptions of each book. Here’s my top ten of 2015 in no particular order.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
The final novel in the Neapolitan series. It’s as brilliant as the previous ones but sadder and more harrowing.
By Kurt Wenzel
“The Story of the Lost Child”
By Elena Ferrante
The fourth and final installment of Ms. Ferrante’s Neapolitan cycle. The books follow two women — the brilliant, inward-looking Elena and her larger-than-life friend Lila — as they try to escape their violent, provincial upbringing in Naples. In this volume, Elena returns to Naples to be with the man she has always loved and tries to renew her friendship with Lila.
Like the previous three installments, “The Story of the Lost Child” offers little in the way of plot. Instead, Ms. Ferrante offers lifelike portraits of two of the most flawed and fascinating women in contemporary literature, along with a comprehensive look at a country painfully trying to drag itself from cloying tradition into modernity. (Europa Editions, $18)
WWB Campus Associate Editor
I’ve thought long and hard to say something that is not Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), since it has gotten so much attention this year and there is a lot more great translated work out there, but this last part of the tetralogy was truly my most memorable literary experience this year. Within the story of Lenu, Ferrante—through the translation of Ann Goldstein—says so much about feminism, politics, friendship, self-doubt, while at the same time painting a picture of a time and a place that is both specifically local and undeniably universal.
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, The Story of the Lost Child (Text, 11/15) – was for me, as evidently for many, the outstanding literary event of the year: a powerful story of female friendship rooted in the poverty of postwar Naples, and subtly overshadowed, as the years pass, by loss, mystery, and moral ambiguity.
I don’t know anything about how anyone chooses the best books of the year. It’s not like any of us have read every book published and it’s not like there’s any objective way to rank books, so what makes something best? I don’t know. Maybe everyone else does. I’m a favorites person.
These are my fourteen favorite books of 2015, in no particular order.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante
I read the last page seven times in a row. Not only did I not want the series to end, but that last page was so perfect, so stunning, so exactly what I needed.
I wish I’d published: The book that brought out the green-eyed monster in me (and every editor will know what I mean) is most definitely Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome, SPQR – it’s exactly the sort of brilliantly researched, authoritatively written and accessible non-fiction that we particularly love to publish. A very close second would be Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (the fourth and final one was published this year). It is terrific to see translated literary fiction achieve this level of success, and hopefully it will encourage readers to explore other writers from around the world – and booksellers to support them.
I wish I’d published: The extraordinary, delicious, maddening, mysterious Elena Ferrante. I have the fourth one, The Story of the Lost Child, to devour over Christmas.
Editor in chief, Bloomsbury
I wish I’d published: I will have to join the legion of other publishers who I am sure will say Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. Jhumpa Lahiri told me about her a few years ago and I read them passionately, obsessively, longingly.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2015); My Brilliant Friend (2012); The Story of a New Name (2013); Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay(2014).
Several of us in the Verso team received our diagnosis this summer from a certified medical doctor who scrutinized our exhausted faces, distracted eyes and dramatic swings of emotion: “I’m sorry. You have come down with a severe case of Ferrante fever. The worst will pass but the hunger will never fade.” This fever of addiction stole sleep, stoked obsession and caused dangerous and foolish behaviour, such as crossing the road whilst reading—but it also brought new and old friends together in a happy haze of intoxication. Thus, here are some snippets from my brilliant friends that illustrate our year of reading Ferrante:
“The clandestine clubbishness that envelopes women who’ve read and immersed themselves in the texts shows how little female desire, anger and vulnerability is accurately and confidently explored in literature and culture. Finding other readers leads to a torrent of questions: which character are you? Did the final page destroy you? What happened with the shoes?”—Dawn Foster
“Are Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels even books? I began to doubt it when I talked about them with other people – mostly women. We returned to life too quickly as we spoke: who was your Lila, the childhood friend who effortlessly dazzled everyone? […] The usual distance between fiction and life collapses when you read Ferrante. She knows it too: writing the Neapolitan quartet, she has said, was like ‘having the chance to live my life over again’.
“It would be enough to have books in which we recognise the truth of women’s lives in all its darkness, but the Neapolitan quartet also has an almost deranging narrative pleasure, delivered in a style that’s more of an admission that the author cares too much about the truth to bother with style. The publication of the fourth and final volume is a terrible moment.”—Joanna Biggs
I’ve fallen short of my book-a-week target for 2015 by about 10 books, but what’s missing in quantity has been more than made up for in quality.
Picking five favourites has therefore been so difficult – particularly as four could be by the same author – that I’ve cheated a little. (Is quadrilogy an actual word?)
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante
There’s not a lot left unsaid about these books, not least by me, as I reviewed #1 My Brilliant Friendin January and #s 2 and 3, The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay in the summer.
These books had an emotional charge to them that is rarely matched as well as a fierce honesty in the story-telling that made them compelling and uncomfortable in turn. When you start dreaming about characters in the book you’re reading, you know they have either deeply affected you or scared the life out of you. In this case it erred toward the former although Lila is more than capable of the latter.
Closing the book at the end of volume 4, The Story of the Lost Child, was the beginning of a grieving process. I’ve filled the gap these books left – to some extent anyway – with the Ferrante back catalogue. Amazingly, The Days of Abandonment, a story with incredibly strong echoes of the Lila and Lenú saga, managed to turn the emotional intensity up even higher.
These are books to be reckoned with, as memorable as anything I’ve ever read.
Laura Waddell, Digital Marketing Executive at Freight Books
The most significant reading experience I’ve had in 2015 has beenElena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series translated by Ann Goldstein, the last of which, The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), was published in English in September. Ferrante depicts what it is to be a working class woman from a Neopolitan village in this story spanning the lifetime of two friends. Although these parallel lives take different paths, Lenu and Lila are inescapably impacted by the class and gender situation of their births throughout, in ways both obvious and eye-openingly subtle. The story of the two friends is set to the backdrop of violent Italian politics in the mid twentieth century. Essentially, the novels are an exploration of pervasive systems of power told through the domestic, romantic and working lives of two characters who utterly got under my skin. Having finished the series I’m still grieving it being over.