My Brilliant Friend tr. by Ann Goldstein

Elena Ferrante is already something of an Italian legend. An author said to spurn interviews, her pen name fuelling speculation about her real identity. Her work is said to be autobiographical and already capturing the attention of English readers in a similar way to the autobiographical series of novels by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard.

Being a fan of translated fiction I have had my eye on this series for a while and from the reviews and articles I have read, her work reminds me of Caroline Smailes, whose excellent novel The Drowning of Arthur Braxton was my favourite read in 2013.

My Brilliant FriendIn 2012, My Brilliant Friend, the first in the trilogy of Neapolitan novels was translated into English and the two subsequent books The Story of a New Name and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay were published in 2013 and 2014 consecutively.

The trilogy follows the lives and friendship of Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo, two astute girls from a downtrodden suburb slum of post war  1950’s & 1960’s Naples, as they navigate the challenges and opportunities necessary to survive and overcome their upbringing.

My Brilliant Friend spans Elena and Lila’s childhood and adolescence years in their neighbourhood, one where aggression, tension and feuds reign and graduating from school is less of a priority than finding safety and protection from the inhabitants of their immediate environment.

The first pages begin with the naming of characters, a family tree of the neighbourhood, members of each family and their occupations. I often find these lists of characters overwhelming, so ignored them, telling myself, if the book is good, I’ll know who all these characters are by the end. And when I went back to look at it, sure enough, I knew who they all were.

The story then begins with a prologue when the girls are women in their mid-fifties and creates a mystery that won’t be resolved in the first book, as the girls only reach the age of sixteen by its conclusion. It intrigues and teases the reader to continue to read on and discover what it is Elena knows, that no one else does.

“It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means.”

A Naples Slum

A Naples Slum

Elena is angry and so begins to write this narrative, in an act of revenge-like competitiveness, a trait that has defined her relationship with Lila throughout their childhood and adolescence.

Narrated from the point of view of Elena, the girls first recollection of being together is around the fearful presence of Don Achille, the local grocer whose name is associated with a fairy tale ogre.

In their play, Lila’s actions are always decisive and with bold intent, Elena is less bold, yet more determined, she follows her friend but wishes to surpass her and learns how to cope with the sacrifices necessary to continue to be her friend. Starting with the day Lila dropped her doll through the street grating into a dark underground cellar.

“But that day I learned a skill at which I later excelled. I held back my despair, I held it back on the edge of my wet eyes, so that Lila said to me in dialect:

‘You don’t care about her?’

I didn’t answer. I felt a violent pain, but I sensed that the pain of quarrelling with her would be even stronger. I was as if strangled by two agonies, one already happening, the loss of the doll, and one possible, the loss of Lila.”

After her early years of passing well her exams, there is one year when Elena’s attention strays and as a result her parents are no longer willing to support her in school. They won’t pay for extra tuition but if she studies and resits the exams, they will allow her to continue.

Lila, who never fails, will have to leave school, regardless of her ability, her family isn’t willing to support her education. She has a hunger for education and follows Elena’s progress, increasing her knowledge, surpassing her friend, becoming more like her teacher, though never sitting another exam.

“She had begun to study Greek even before I went to high school? She had done it on her own, while I hadn’t even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?”

Snapshot 1 (09-11-2012 17-25)

Friendship by Allia

The book ends with a wedding, the girls paths seem to be heading in different directions, they continue to navigate their lives according to the expectations and threats of their community, yet their paths, in their different ways, potentially hold the seeds of their escape.

My Brilliant Friend is an emotionally charged coming-of-age read and the story held me riveted all the way through from the prologue that isn’t resolved through their early schooldays up to that wedding day.

Ferrante’s depiction of the two girls friendship bristles with vulnerable authenticity, igniting our curiosity in their interactions with their community, making the reader care about what will happen to them all next.

Next Book in the Series: The Story of a New Name

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk and for Helen Macdonald, and her Hibernation from Humanity in coping with her father’s untimely death and her own pending transition, as her Cambridge University fellowship is coming to an end and she must soon leave the comfortable country cottage that came with it.

H is for HawkResponding to an instinctive need to escape reality she obtains a goshawk, retreats into her cottage, unplugs her telephone and focuses on training the raptor at the same time observing her own behaviour which begins to resemble the bird’s.

“The kind of madness I had was different. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. The problem was that it had nothing to work with. There was no partner, no children, no home. No nine-to-five job either. So it grabbed anything it could. It was desperate, and it read off the world wrong.”

In all her years as a falconer, she had never wanted to fly a goshawk, she feared them and comes to realise she has taken on the attitudes of those who glorified falcons, bird of nobility, of aristocracy, men of privilege, those who mocked the humble goshawk. But times and perceptions had changed, and getting to know and train a goshawk was the challenge she set for herself.

“Goshawks were ruffians: murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign.”

She waits on a Scottish pier for the Belfast ferry, which is transporting a man and his goshawk, soon enough she will become the owner of the bird she names Mabel.

The days pass and her focus must be with Mabel, she spurns human company, spending her free time in the company of T.H White, rereading The Goshawk, a book she had read as a child when her passion for birds was in its formative stages. White wrote about his failed attempt to train a goshawk, his account wrapped up in childhood fears and inclinations. Helen Macdonald reads around the life and writings of this man in order to understand him, as if to explain to her childhood self, why he did what he did.

“I understood why people considered it a masterpiece. For White made falconry a metaphysical battle. Like Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea, The Goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to Puritan traditions of spiritual contest: salvation as a stake to be won in a contest against God.”

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope
Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

It is a fascinating and insightful read as the author shares her commitment to an obsessive need to tame the hawk and exposes her vulnerability in coping with all that she wishes to avoid. Writing about the training of a goshawk is also a way of avoiding talking about herself. We must read outside the narrative of the book to know more about Helen’s previous experience and expertise with hawks, we can tell she is no amateur, however she avoids looking back or enlightening the reader too much about her past, we are kept very much in the present, as unnerved as she is by her descent into hawk-like behaviours and instincts.

I love nature writing that stimulates the imagination, that offers more than just an observation of what the author sees, but describes the environment and what an observer brings to it, one that provokes us to think about our own relationship to birds, animals and nature. Helen Macdonald comes to her goshawk challenge with fixed ideas about the need to escape all, she sets herself up like a scientific hypothesis, begins her transformation into a hawk like creature and then slowly deconstructs it, coming back to the realisation of her own humanity.

“Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Falconry_sport_of_kings_(1920)

Falconry, the sport of Kings Source: wikipedia

She reminds us of the place and symbolism of falconry within humanity, its association with the hunt, with death, war, power and subservience.

It is unique in being a woman’s perspective within a heritage that has long been the domain of men, nobility, landowners, gentry, medieval lords.

It is refreshingly alive, honest and knowledgeable, exhibiting how our weaknesses and our strengths advance and recede in unison as naturally as the ebb and flow of tides.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Vera BrittainThat Vera Brittain chose to name her autobiography a Testament, at first seems like an assertion of her intellectual inclinations, particularly in light of the decision she made to pause her hi-brow Oxford University studies when the First World War began as her closest friends, her fiancé Roland and brother Edward all signed up to participate, one by one departing for France.

She had fought hard to be accepted into Oxford, at a time when women were not exactly welcome, her own family and many of their social peers thought it a waste of time. It remained important, but while those she was closest to were sacrificing everything, it felt indulgent to be pursuing anything intellectual. She volunteered to become a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse as she sought the diversion of physically demanding work to lessen the idle hours of mental anguish concerning her male contemporaries at war.

Testament is more than one woman’s intellectual account, it is evidence of a generation’s stunted youth, a youth stolen by war and loyalty, one that for the men who participated, would continue to be acknowledged and remembered, their efforts appreciated and honoured. For Vera Brittain it would bring grief, disappointment and disillusionment.

She recalled one of her last bittersweet moments, punting up the river in Oxford with her friend Norah, whom she would not see again after the end of that term.

‘No evening on the river had held a glamour equal to that one, which might so well be the last of all such enchanted evenings. How beautiful they seemed – the feathery bend with its short, stumpy willows, the deep green shadows in the water under the bank, the blue, brilliant mayflies which somersaulted in the air and fell dying into the water, gleaming like strange, exotic jewels in the mellow light of the setting sun.

I had meant to do such wonderful things that year, to astonish my fellows by unprecedented triumphs, to lay the foundations of a reputation that would grow ever greater and last me through life; and instead the War and love had intervened and between them were forcing me away with all my confident dreams unfulfilled.’

Malta Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain, 3rd from left, in Malta, WWI

Her nursing efforts took her out of the northern provinces of England for good, away from her studies at Oxford to a military hospital in London, until events would propel her to volunteer for a foreign assignment, taking her to Malta and then close to the front line in France for the remaining years of the war.

Her account is all the richer for the journals she kept from 1913 to 1917 and rather than present them in full, she selects extracts to bring the era to life, sharing the angst and idealism of her youth, simultaneously looking back and narrating from the wisdom of early middle age, for she was 40 years old before she would finally see the much revised autobiography in print.

The book contains snippets of letters to and from Vera and her fiancé Roland and her brother Edward, they were her life blood, her motivation to face the relentless days in the hospital, where their work offered so much and yet did so little to stem the flow of blood and severed limbs, pain and hopelessness.

The letters that pass between Vera and Roland reveal the slow loss of hope, optimism and valour as they struggle to find meaning in war. Despite the often depressing content, they are fortunate to have each other, writing letters prolifically, drawing each other deeper into a love that they knew could be destroyed on any day.

After the war, Vera returns to Oxford and finds herself isolated. She has difficulty articulating her experience in a way that is understood and instead invites scorn and derision. A new generation of youth has swept up behind her and they have little time for the lessons that might be gleaned from a mature student who forsook her youth for volunteer nursing abroad. She gets involved in the debating society, and in one of the more excruciating passages in the book, valiantly tries to prove her point only to discover it will be she who is taught the lesson.

‘In the eyes of these realistic ex-High-School girls, who had sat out the war in classrooms, I was now aware that I represented neither a respect-worthy volunteer in a national cause nor a surviving victim of history’s cruellest catastrophe; I was merely a figure of fun, ludicrously boasting of her experiences in an already démodé conflict. I had been, I suspected, largely to blame for my own isolation. I could not throw off the War, nor the pride and the grief of it; rooted and immersed in memory, I had appeared self-absorbed, contemptuous and ‘stand-offish’ to my ruthless and critical juniors.’

Vera’s hope and her life purpose after the war, was to try to understand and then participate in any action that could prevent humanity from making the same terrible mistakes that caused the loss of so many lives. She changed her focus from Literature to History and searched for proof of anything that had been put in place to prevent such destructive hostilities from wiping out a generation of youth. She found what she was looking for in treaties and agreements and became an international speaker for the League of Nations attempting to advance understanding and awareness among the common population.

The book impressed me with its honesty, particularly as Vera Brittain was not afraid to portray her flaws; through the extracts from her journals we have a real sense of the character she was in her twenties and though she is the same person after the war and we recognise her inclinations, her direction in life is permanently altered by the experiences of those years.

The combination of experiencing the present through her diary and letters and her observations from the maturity of having survived war and gained some distance from it, from which to observe her former self, provides the reader a unique insight into humanity.

For me, it was a gripping read and although we learn much of the story in the opening introduction, it does nothing to lessen the effect as we witness Vera receiving news she has dreaded from the beginning and more than the individual events, the observation of emotional ups and downs and the effect of war on a generation seen from a young woman’s perspective is more insightful than any rendition of battles or victories I have ever read.

If the prospect of reading a 600 page book seems daunting, look out for the movie coming out in 2015!

Mrs. Hemingway by Naomi Wood

Four wives and an addiction to marriage. Despite the difficulty he had remaining faithful, Hemingway didn’t like being single, he liked his women to be contracted to him and then to have his liberty.

Though not a huge fan of his work, being more of a Steinbeck admirer than Hemingway, his connection to France and that group of Americans referred to as the lost generation, those who stayed or returned to Europe after the war, has ensured another kind of following and spawned an entire collection of literature, that which reimagines the lives of the artists, writers, their wives, mistresses and hangers-on. So I am one of those who enjoys reading more about him, than reading his actual work.

Thus far, I enjoyed meeting Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife through Paula McLain’s novel The Paris Wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, F.Scott Fitzgerald’s wife in Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda and Gertrude Stein and others in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. He even made an appearance in Francisco Haghenbeck’s The Secret Book of Frida Kahlo while she was hanging out in Paris with Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keefe and the Surrealists.

Mrs HemingwayNaomi Wood joins the club of authors channelling the voices of expat writers wives who lived in Paris, fascinating not just because they were the wives of men who wrote famous stories, but because they are women who made the decision to abandon the comfortable and familiar, to leave their country and family behind.

Both Hadley Richardson and Zelda Fitzgerald arrived in the shadow of their husbands dreams, without any ambition other than to be a faithful and supportive wife. As such, they encountered innumerable challenges in trying to create a satisfactory home life in a foreign country.

All of Hemingway’s wives spent time living in Paris, both the city and the man the thread that bound them together. Of the four, Martha and Mary perhaps fared better, both working journalists living there on their own terms, with their own purpose outside of marriage.

The book is structured in four equal parts, each dedicated to one wife and starts by portending the end, scenes that evoke the sense of an ending while they also contain the feminine distraction that signals the introduction of the next potential marriage candidate. Not one of the wives will be immune to the repetitive Hemingway pattern. It is a pattern he repeats all his life until the brutal ends.

With each end, we witness the beginning and each wife is witness to the new arrival and a foreshadowing of her demise. The novel centres around how he entered and exited these relationships without dwelling on the mundane, the structure keeping up the pace and instilling a sense of anticipation in the reader, wanting to know what could have happened in between times to change things.

“Sitting beside this woman to whom Ernest as already dedicated a poem, Martha recognizes Mary suddenly for what she is: her ticket out of here. This morning she saw that Ernest won’t let her break things off if there’s any chance he’s going to be alone. What he fears is loneliness, and whatever brutish thoughts he has when he is left untended. Only is he is assured of another wife will he let his present wife go.”

Like a poem, there is symmetry to the four wives and while they all love their husband and support him, none can prevent his inclination towards self-destruction, his propensity for excess. It is an insightful book in the way it presents the four relationships, carefully chosen scenes depicting the emergence and decline of their relationship.

We witness the relationships come and go like waves rising out of the ocean, resplendent at their peak, despite containing the knowledge of their inevitable destiny, to crash, disappear and reform anew. Hemingway rode the waves for as long as he could, writing prolifically, often using his own experiences as his subject matter. Perhaps he finally made it to the foreshore and saw the metaphoric waves for what they are, water rising and falling until it inevitably reaches the shore and destroys itself.

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway,1923 Source: Wikipedia

A worthy addition to the collection of literature that imagines the lives of Hemingway, his wives and the lost generation.

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

My first read of Brazilian literature, read while the World Cup Football was playing out, though I admit to watching very few of the games, and none after my 11-year-old son left for a holiday with his Grandparents, no longer here to insist I stay up and watch the game with him. But Brazilian literature, why yes please!

Family HeirloomsFamily Heirlooms was written by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated by Daniel Hanh. Born in 1930 in Sao Paulo, she wrote both fiction and non-fiction and was the recipient of many literary awards including the highest honour, the Jabuti Prize for this novella, now available for the first time in English.

It is the story of Maria Bráulia Munhoz, a widow whose nephew Julião is acting as her secretary, though not entirely trusted by his Aunt and especially after the news he brings her in the opening pages about her family heirloom.

The family heirloom brings back the memory of her husband, the judge, who brought it to impress her and her family. It is symbolic of their relationship, an item of great beauty and admired by all, though deceptive, multi-faceted, rarely seen for what it truly is.

Pigeon blood ruby

Pigeon blood ruby

Regardless of the deception, Maria maintains her honour, dignity and the illusion of her marriage long after her husband has departed. She uses her naiveté as a tool for her own survival, for as long as she continues to live with the perception of normalcy, so it continues to reign in her life. Like the emperor in his new clothes, she wears her heirloom with pride.

Maria reminds me a little of the mother figure in Carmen LeForet’s Nada, attempting to retain her bourgeois respectability despite evidence to the contrary, though she never allows us to feel sorry for her, for she makes of her situation exactly what she wishes it to be and insists that everyone sees it her way too. She is indeed a survivor.

An enjoyable, thought-provoking read of illusion, deception, acceptance and survival.

Sula, Toni Morrison

SulaA farmer promises freedom and a piece of land referred to as Bottom, to his slave if he performs some difficult chores. The town of Medallion grows up around the farmland, looking down on the valley where the more fertile land and the white folks live.

The slave blinked and said he thought valley land was bottom land. The master said, ‘Oh no! See those hills? That’s bottom land, rich and fertile.

‘But it’s high up in the hills,’ said the slave.

‘High up from us,’ said the master, but when God looks down, it’s the bottom. That’s why we call it so. It’s the bottom of heaven, the best land there is.’

It’s the town where Sula and Nel grow up in the 1920’s. Both are only children, Nel raised in her mother’s quiet, orderly neat home that oppresses her and keeps her protected and Sula in the home of her infamous grandmother Eva Pearce, a woman who hasn’t come downstairs in years and may or may not have done despicable things before she became one-legged and runs a kind of boarding house for vagrants.

“a household of throbbing disorder constantly awry with thins, people, voices and the slamming of doors”

In childhood, the two girls differences are insignificant, they revel in each other’s company, they test the boundaries of their community and environment, they experience joy and witness horror. They bury the past until it returns to haunt them in adulthood, when they can no longer avoid who they were always destined to be, thanks to the judgments and perceptions of others and the behaviours of those who went before them. And themselves.

“Their evidence against Sula was contrived, but their conclusions about her were not. Sula was distinctly different. Eva’s arrogance and Hannah’s self-indulgence merged in her and, with a twist that was all her own imagination, she lived out her days exploring her own thoughts and emotions, giving them full reign, feeling no obligation to please anybody unless their pleasure pleased her.”

The book is separated into two parts, the early 1920’s during the girls childhood and the late 30’s, early 40’s when Sula returns and creates a disturbing ripple throughout the small community, no longer used to her carefree ways, having forgotten the inclinations of the female characters she was spawned from. She becomes estranged from them all. Except one.

It is about the innocence and bonds of childhood, secrets between friends, the inclination to follow the well-trodden path of those who have gone before, despite the desire for freedom and individuality and the reluctance of others to see them any differently.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

Her books are almost always the perfect size of a novella and every one of Toni Morrison’s stories I have read brings so much more than the sum of its pages to the reader in terms of things to consider, long after the last page is turned.

Her language is poetic, her characters resplendent with their flaws, they speak for the one and the many and show us ourselves, the parts we hide from view, that which is judged from outside and the inclination to judge without knowing.

 

Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange #Memoir #Giveaway

Good Morning

Thanks to the publisher Viking, Penguin-Random House, one lucky US reader can win a copy of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, an in-depth account of her 20-year dedication to her employer Nelson Mandela.

Win a Copy!

To enter the draw, leave a message below or on the book review post here. Only US readers with a valid postal address are able to enter sorry. Entries close Sunday 3 August.

An Additional Entry!

Share one of your favorite quotes from Nelson Mandela to gain an additional entry.

You can find a list of quotes here on Goodreads.

Bonne Chance!