The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante tr. By Ann Goldstein … Neapolitan Tetralogy Book 2

The Story of a New NameThe second in the tetralogy of books about two friends Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood of Naples. The first book My Brilliant Friend I reviewed here.

Both girls were bright students in primary school, and perhaps because the story is narrated from Elena’s perspective she often sees herself in the shadow of her friend Lila, as if she must strive to attain her success, while Lila’s comes more naturally.

Lila fights to elevate herself, suggesting Elena studies with her to help her friend, thereby attaining the knowledge herself and through imposing her will on her husband, her family and business associates, who need her input and influence which she uses to both help them and to ensure her often rebellious stance is understood by them all.

It is Elena who despite her family circumstances progresses through high school and at the suggestion of a teacher applies to a university in Pisa where she can continue her studies.

Lila whose beauty and bravado bring her more to the attention of local boys wanting to move themselves up in the world financially, becomes entangled in their schemes and part of their negotiations and is married at sixteen to Stefano the grocer, partly in order to avoid the attention of the Solara brothers.

“How difficult it was to find one’s way, how difficult it was not to violate any of the incredibly detailed male regulations.”

Through her personal notebooks that she entrusts to Elena for safekeeping and Elena’s inability to withhold from the temptation of what they offer, we too as readers understand more from within the bounds of Lila’s marriage and life than we might otherwise from the limited perspective of her friend, particularly during the frequent periods where the friendship was being tested and therefore withheld.

Though unwilling to be trapped inside marriage, Elena does envy her friend the space and luxury her new status as Signora Raffaella Carracci has given her and when Lila’s husband suggests a summer holiday on doctor’s orders to increase her chances of conceiving a child, Lila’s insistence that her friend accompany becomes Elena’s excuse to find a way to be in close proximity to Nino Sarratore, the brilliant student she has had a crush on for years. His arrival becomes a turning point in their lives, though not the outcome either of them were wishing for.

Pisa NormaleElena distances herself from Lila and from her family and moves to Pisa, where initially she struggles to brush off the ways of her neighbourhood, her origin, her accent, things that make it obvious to others she is not one of them. She throws herself into her studies and into becoming more like her contemporaries; a new boyfriend aids her transition.

“That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighbourhood. They were nervous, they were acquiescent. They were silent, with tight lips and stooping shoulders, or they yelled terrible insults at the children who harassed them….

They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labours or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings? Would Lila be misshapen like Nunzia?…

And would my body too, one day be ruined by the emergence of not only my mother’s body, but my father’s? And would all that I was learning at school dissolve, would the neighbourhood prevail again, the cadences, the manners, everything be confounded in a black mire,…”

Leaving Naples allows Elena to begin to reform herself, to blend in, the novel highlights the tension between the Neapolitan dialect spoken in her neighbourhood and the correct Italian spoken by the professional, educated classes. Dialect is associated with aggression, insults and anger, with all the negative emotions and difficult challenges of a repressed community, while the Italian symbolises upward mobility and refinement.

Napoletana“Be careful where all this studying leads, Lenu. Remember who you are and which side you’re on.”

I found Book 2 just as engaging as Book 1, more than just narrating the events that mould the two girls’ lives is the underlying philosophical question of whether one can rise above one’s origins via the attainment of significant wealth or education. Elena and Lila represent these twin avenues, in their attempt to escape their origins.

The novel continues to focus on the friendship of the two girls and their connections with others, both those from within their sphere and those they encounter outside, a measure of how far they have progressed in their aim to rise up and out of the confines of the neighbourhood.

The narrative is less dramatic than it might be by some of the omissions. Elena doesn’t recount much of her own dialogue with her boyfriends and much of the story is narrated or told, rather than putting the reader in the midst of the events as if to experience them. It is the psychological and philosophical elements of the placement of the two women in these situations that lend themselves a kind of accepted inevitability, we won’t be shocked by anything that happens, knowing their backgrounds, it is the lure of that question of whether either of them can or will escape their fate that entices us to read on.

Next Book in the Series: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (click title to read review)

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Nora WebsterSomething about the promise of Colm Tóibín’s new novel Nora Webster pulled me in right from the beginning, the cover with its familiar Irish landscape of boats moored against a grey sky, the less conspicuous protagonist, a 40-year-old housewife who doesn’t become the mother of a prophet, an oversensitive woman who rarely gives voice to the many thoughts that race through her mind as she tries to cope with the aftermath of her husband’s untimely death and the shift in relations with her four children.

We know little of her life with her husband Maurice, she doesn’t wallow in pity, though we know she neglected all else, including visiting her sons who were living with her Aunt, one of whom develops a stutter as a result, during those last months when he was dying.

“In these months, she realised, something had changed in the clear, easy connection between her and them, perhaps, for them, between each other. She felt that she would never be sure about them again.”

Nora Webster is a complex character whom few on the outside really understand, including her siblings, who despite their sister’s loss, well, according to Nora – seem to want to avoid her. Even when invited, she senses they wish her gone so they can talk about her. She behaves in a way to provoke them, ensuring they will have something to talk about, deliberately avoiding helping out, resolving not to do any washing up or to help in the kitchen.

“She wondered if she would ever be able to have a normal conversation and what topics she might be able to discuss with ease and interest.”

Set in a small town outside Dublin, in 1960’s Ireland, the novel charts a short period of time after her husband’s death in which Nora makes some important decisions such as selling the beach house and going back to work. She gets her hair dyed and joins the Gramophone Society. She takes singing lessons and following the advice of her Aunt puts her son into boarding school. She begins to create a life that would have been unimaginable in the past and becomes a woman she is comfortable with but surprised by, almost in spite of herself.

Colm Tóibín uses a particular narrative device that has a significant effect on how we see things. By writing in the third person limited perspective, we only ever see things from Nora’s point of view, there is little opportunity to see events in any other way, with the exception of the occasional insightful dialogue. This is the only time we hear what people have to say about Nora.

POVThe narrative perspective creates a narrow, introspective insight into her thinking, but also raises doubts as to whether what she thinks actually reflects reality, as she so rarely expresses her questioning thoughts and prefers to let them lie unstated, preferring to deal with the consequence of her silence. It made me want to shout  “Speak your mind Nora!”

She visits her sister who doesn’t offer them food after a long journey, Nora knows the boys are hungry and wonders if her sister believes they had already eaten, but says nothing.

“What was strange, she noticed, was that Catherine did not give her any opportunity to mention food; instead she spoke to her as though she were not really there. Once she noticed this, she found that she could notice nothing else….she had created an atmosphere in which Nora could have nothing to say.”

Nora has such powerful equanimity, that she rarely speaks, it is as if she lives continuously outside herself, observing herself and others in the situation and wondering many things that she will never utter. It is part of her character, accentuated by grief. To the point that when she does act and we see what she is capable of, it is a shock, it seems out of character. She is quite a force after all.

“She had trained herself not to ask any of the children too many questions. If she came home with a parcel of any kind when she was growing up, her mother would need to know what was in the parcel, or if a letter came for her, her mother would need to know who it was from and what news it contained. Nora had found this constantly irritating, and tried with her own children not to intrude.”

Nora Webster is a perplexing character and Colm Tóibín a masterful creator of character, deliberately using a narrative device that prevents the reader from feeling comfortable with her observation of reality, while forcing us to accept it. We too are trapped inside Nora’s mind, just as she is trapped inside her grief. We feel the need to escape, to shout, to ask someone what is really happening here.

“They did not have her way of watching every scene, every moment, for signs of what was missing or what might have been.”

I found the novel a compelling, albeit at times annoying read. I turned the pages hungry for more and found myself resenting the authorial control over the narrative perspective. I wanted to read a companion novel, the one written from the point of view of her son Donal or her daughter Fiona, I didn’t trust Nora Webster’s interpretation of people’s motives and although she knew people gossiped behind her back, I really wanted to know what it was they were saying and not just her wild, over analytic guess at what was passing through the minds of members of her family and community.

042512_1611_IntheSpring1.jpgNora’s grief is unique in that she very rarely dwells on the past and we aren’t sure whether the way she is now, is how she always was or how much of it is the result of her grieving.

One of the best novels I have read portraying a widow’s grief was Susan Hill’s astonishing, In the Springtime of the Year, which I highly recommend, her protagonist is equally displaced by grief and experiencing an existential crisis provoked by the untimely death of her young husband.

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

My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante tr. by Ann Goldstein…Neapolitan Tetralogy Book1

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 (click title to read review)

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Buy My Brilliant Friend at Book Depository

H is for Hawk, Winner of Samuel Johnson Prize, Costa Prize

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.