About a month ago, several people recommended that I should read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. Then my local bookshop devoted a window display to her, so it seemed a good time to plunge in. The novels follow the friendship between two women, the narrator Elena and Raffaella, whom Elena calls Lila. Throughout the course of the series I imagine we’ll cover most of the second half of the 20th century, but this first book sets the scene with the story of their childhood and adolescence in a modest, run-down suburb of Naples.
From what my friends had said, I’d expected something dazzling, overpowering in its talent; but I actually found that the novel was much more subtle and thoughtful than that. We are offered a brief glimpse of the adult Elena at the beginning, looking back over her friendship with Lila, but for the most part we are firmly in the minds of two children, two smart girls who are trying to understand the way the world works, and to carve out their own places within it.
One of the lovely things about this book is that their world is such a circumscribed place, as happens in childhood. For Elena and Lila, nothing truly exists beyond their immediate neighbourhood in 1950s Naples. It’s a community scarred by memories of death and collaboration in the war, and divided by ancient feuds and fears which the two girls simply accept, having no understanding of what came ‘before’ them. Their early lives barely venture beyond the courtyard at the heart of the tenement buildings where they live: their ogres are the people whom their parents fear, without explaining why, and their allies and enemies are the other children who attend their school.
Even as they grow older, there’s a very defined sense of the territory where they are ‘able’ to move: their homes, their schools and the public gardens by the church, where everyone goes for the passeggiata on a Sunday, in a rhythm of life that has governed their neighbourhood for generations. Even when they begin to venture out into the wider city, they can only legitimately do so with escorts: their bullish, swaggering, belligerent male peers, like modern incarnations of the Montagues and Capulets, always looking for an insult or a fight, envious of anyone with more than them, but ready to draw blood at the slightest imputation of inferiority.
Elena and Lila are both unusual in that they are bright enough to dream of futures beyond working in the local shops, helping their mothers at home, and becoming housewives with no thought beyond their chores and children. They’re able to consider breaking the limits that have been imposed on them. At first they try to do so through study. Effortlessly brilliant Lila outstrips all around her, despite the bafflement of her humble, unschooled family; and Elena, fighting to keep up, is spurred by competitiveness to excel. This forms the basis of their complicated but always convincing friendship: the need to prove themselves worthy to one another, underlaid by fierce loyalty and frequent outbursts of almost unbearable envy (on Elena’s part at least).
One of the finest parts of the book is that absolutely accurate evocation of friendship, which is never a simple relationship. I especially loved the fact that Elena, despite all her academic flair, feels that Lila always manages to undermine her. Having discovered her intellectual gifts while trying to keep up with Lila, she clings to them and pursues them long after Lila has lost interest in such things. Defining herself by grades and scholarships and public praise, Elena feels that Lila has somehow negated her achievement by finding another, more rewarding, more profound way to tackle life. In all things – study, business, even love – Lila seems to have a talent for success. Yet throughout the book there’s also a growing sense of Lila’s fragility: a sense that this dazzling accomplishment won’t last; a warning, perhaps, for what’s to come.
It’s a rewarding book because it is so deeply humane and generous. The residents of this turbulent neighbourhood aren’t stereotypes, but slowly and gracefully take shape as real people: Melina, Enzio, Donato Sarratore. With the same subtlety, we gradually begin to understand, through the girls’ eyes, why certain families are respected and cannot be offended: after all, the tendrils of the Camorra stretch even here, into their modest lives. Everything feels so very true. I’ve no doubt that when I come to read the later books in the series I’ll find that some apparently incidental scenes in My Brilliant Friend have some broader significance, some bearing on what happens in the future, and I suspect that this is going to be a series which can be read again and again, with greater appreciation each time. I understand that no one knows who Elena Ferrante really is, but this book has the conviction of memory and I can only assume that there is autobiography in there, to some degree. And if all the people feel convincing, there’s none more so than Lila herself: hard, challenging, self-confident, irreverent, determined and creative – a quicksilver mind, and a wonderful creation.
This isn’t the kind of novel that I finish with the desperate urge to rush out onto the street, grab someone and press it into their hands there and then. It’s a slow-burner: the kind of book that’s still preying on your thoughts a couple of days after you finish it. Beautifully crafted, it develops a narrative through the slow accumulation of layers of meaning and understanding, offering a glimpse of a rough, ruthless and unforgiving world trembling on the brink of social change. There’s one thing for sure: Ferrante, whoever she may be, is a consummate craftsman. Don’t come to this expecting immediate flash and sparkle. Come to it with time on your hands, a cup of tea, and the will to let yourself be quietly sucked into the story, and enjoy.
Next in this series: The Story of a New Name