Eva Sleeps by Francesca Melandri tr. Katherine Gregor

Eva Sleeps is a thought-provoking novel that takes the reader on multiple journeys, as the narrative slowly unravels the mystery that connects Eva, her mother Gerda and Vito.

“Where’s Eva anyway?”

“Eva is sleeping.”

The brown parcel travelled backward along the road it had taken to arrive at that spot: two thousand, seven hundred and ninety-four kilometres in total,there and back.

Eva Sleeps is a reference from Paradise Lost and a quote in the book that is repeated both in the prologue (above) and at the end of the novel, referring to the delivery of a package that arrives from the postal worker for Eva, one that her mother rejects, saying it is unwanted. It is an indirect introduction to the three main characters, introducing a connection that will be alluded through throughout and revealed  by the end after we too have travelled that same journey the package takes.

“Let Eve (for I have drench’d her eyes, Here sleep below, while thou to foresight wak’st.”

John Milton, Paradise Lost, book XI

We meet Eva as she is met at Munich airport by Carlo, he will drive her the three-hour journey across two borders to her home in Sudtirol/Alto Adige in a German-speaking part of northern Italy. It is the beginning of the Easter holiday and the beginning of a longer journey she will make when she receives the call from Vito telling her he doesn’t have long to live and that he’d like to see her again.

Eva’s chapters are titled Kilometre 0, Kilometres 0-35, up to Kilometre 1397 ending with Kilometre 0, Today. These chapters contain her thoughts and observations as she makes the 1400km journey towards the dying Vito in Sicily.

The interposing chapters are Gerda’s story and they are labelled by the years within which her story is narrated, beginning in 1919, a year in which:

“…the peace treaty was being signed in Saint-Germain, with which the victorious powers of the Great War – France, especially – wishing to punish the dying Austrian Empire, assigned South Tyrol to Italy. Italy was very surprised. There had always been talk of liberating Trento and Trieste, but never Bolzano – let alone Bozen. It was perfectly logical. South Tyrolean’s were German people, perfectly at ease in the Austro-Hungarian empire, and didn’t need anyone to liberate them. Even so, after a war that had certainly not been won on the battlefield, Italy ended up with that stretch of the Alps as their unexpected booty.”

It was also the year her father inherited the family home after the death of his parents. The fate of the family would forever be affected by that political decision, for all those native to the area, who overnight were ruled in a language and culture foreign to their ways, making them like strangers in their own country, as people from the poorer southern parts of Italy were sent to live among them, in an effort to try to make these tall, blond people more Italian.

Gerda’s family is poor and as soon as she is old enough she is sent out to work, she works in the kitchen of a large hotel and alongside her striking beauty, develops a talent for creating delectable local dishes, twin characteristics that will lift her out of poverty and give her a measure of independence, much required after her father disowned her upon the arrival of Eva. She finds a way to continue working without losing her daughter.

Alongside the enthralling life of Gerda, who is the most well-rounded and well-known of the characters we follow, we are exposed to the context of the freedom fights of Alto Adige, those who protested against the cultural white-washing, labelled terrorists for their protests when they turn violent.

“Until a few years ago, when you said you were a German speaker from Alto Adige, they thought you were a terrorist. At the very least they’d ask: but why do you people hate Italians so much?

Then things changed. In the weekly supplement of the newspaper, a few months ago, the front cover was devoted to separatist ethnic movements in Europe. It mentioned:

Corsica, Slovakia, Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque country, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and the Po Valley.

The Po Valley!

No sign of Alto Adige.

Eva Sleeps is a provocative novel of journeys, of connections and contradictions across cultures, of love in its many forms, of struggles and conflicts, identity and how we are connected to place.

Told in a compelling narrative while backgrounding the fascinating and little known history of this part of northern Italy, it does what the historical novels often do best, increase our historical knowledge, while highlighting the ricochet effects political decisions can have on humanity, on innocent civilians, making us understand why the oppression that results turn some towards violence and others to seek love, as ways to dull the pain.

The novel is being made into a film.

Note: This book was kindly provided to me by the publisher, Europa Editions.

 

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The Bastards of Pizzofalcone by Maurizio De Giovanni tr. Andrew Shegaar #WorldNoir

Crime fiction isn’t my usual choice, but I’ve been reading Italian literature in the past week, and since this is also set in Naples and came from Europa Editions, I decided to take a break from the more literary style and read this novel classified as ‘world noir‘ (a tribute and new imprint dedicated to the best in international crime fiction).

A quick look up tells me that noir fiction has its roots in hard-boiled fiction ( a tough, unsentimental style American of crime writing) where the protagonist is often an outcast, alienated. However, Kim Fay from LA Review of Books, when reading noir, used to preparing herself for ‘bleak cynicism and uncomfortable moral ambiguity’ is pleasantly surprised, referring to De Giovanni’s Pizzofalcone precinct series and empathetic characters as ‘tender noir’:

“Reading the Pizzofalcone Precinct series, by Maurizio de Giovanni, I quickly discovered that I can still be surprised. These books didn’t get to me with an extra dose of soul-sucking fatalism or some harrowing new breed of self-destructive protagonist. Instead, their emotional “gotcha!” came in the unexpected form of tenderness.

Tender noir? Is such a thing possible? Yes — and it adds a richness that many noir novels lack.” Kim Fay, LARB

As for alienated, the entire team at the Pizzofalcone precinct in Naples fit that mould, the place was about to be closed down, due to the previous investigative branch have been suspended for being implicated in a crime, the precinct may still be shut down, depending on how this new team of misfits work together and whether they succeed.
The Pizzofalcone precinct covers four distinct neighbourhoods: upmarket, poor, business and historic, it is like a microcosm of the city of Naples, an area where each of it many elements are likely to sidle up against one another.

“The precinct isn’t big, but its crowded; it encompasses a part of the Spanish Quarter and stretches on down to the waterfront. Four different worlds, in other words: the lumpenproletariat, as we used to say in the old days; the white-collar middle class; the businessmen of the upper middle-class; and the aristocracy. Everything except manufacturing, in an area barely three kilometres on a side. One of the oldest police districts in the city, small but strategic.”

All of them have been transferred from their previous workplaces, renegades who are unwelcome where they currently are, involved in some kind of misdemeanour – although in the case of the Sicilican Inspector Lojacono, who becomes the lead investigator of the new murder case, he was both specially requested due to his reputation and passed on without regret, due to allegations of corruption that have tainted and alienated him, since he showed everyone up in his last case by solving it while everyone else was looking in a different direction.

He is new to Naples, he has a teenage daughter he is worried about, a pizza waitress who is eyeing him up and a high-ranking magistrate whom he daydreams inappropriately of.

The wife of a notary is found dead in their apartment with no forced entry and so they set to and investigate, introducing us to various elements of working and non-working Neapolitan life, including an elderly woman who sits at her window all day, every day and is suspicious about the new occupant of an apartment opposite her, a beautiful young woman also never leaves her apartment.

We are also introduced to the obsession of the policemen Giorgio Pisanelli, who collects information about all the recent suicides in the precinct, convinced there is a connection between them and that they are not suicides.

It’s a well-paced, intriguing read, a few short chapters in italics, portraying characters who may be suspects, characters who are trying to hide something, this narrative adding to the mystery and has the reader trying to guess who it might be.  I really enjoyed it and even though I didn’t guess the revelation at the end, I appreciated that it wasn’t overly full of twists, neither was it completely obvious.

The author succeeds in portraying Naples both through the eyes of the newcomer and with the familiarity of a local, adding a compelling element of discovery and opening the way for future instalments. The team was well portrayed, interesting but quirky characters, that clearly will continue, since the resolution of this crime should serve to keep the precinct open, these renegades forming into a solid team while navigating the fine edge between the ongoing surety of their positions and a volatile potential to destroy it with one reckless mistake.

Maurizio de Giovanni was born in Naples in 1958 and for many years worked in a bank, though not a natural vocation, his colleagues attest he always had his nose in a book and it was in fact they who entered him in a short story competition in 2005 for ‘giallo novelists’ (a 20th-century Italian mystery, thriller or horror genre of literature and film) that was the catalyst to his becoming a successful crime writer.

That story introduced detective Commissario Ricciardi and spawned a series of books set in 1930 Naples, fascist Italy. His parents were born in 1930’s Naples, their lives and experiences clearly an influence contributing to his passionate for pre-war Naples of the 1930’s and the city today.

The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, originally published in 2013, marked his transition from the noir genre to the police procedural and a move from the 1930’s to contemporary life in Naples. The series featuring Inspector Lojacono continues (there are six books in Italian) and is being made into a television series in 2017.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Edition, for providing a copy of this book.

Ties by Domenico Starnone (Italy) tr. Jhumpa Lahiri

Ties is a novel about the short and long-term effect of the first grand infidelity, on a couple, on their adult children and even on the life of their cat.

As I began to read, I had a strange feeling of deja vu, or should I say deja lu, the voice of the woman who writes the letters in the opening chapters isn’t the same, but the premise of her abandonment, being left with two children, it’s as if this novel reignited elements of how I imagined Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I read last summer.

I found myself back there, in the same apartment, experiencing the same circumstances, only these were not the reflections of the same woman, nor of the same writer – well no – this is a man writing these letters from a woman (Vanda) and then in a voice that rings more true, that of the man (Aldo) who abandons, who wanted to suspend the life he found himself in, in pursuit of something that claimed nothing more than pleasure from him.

In Ferrante’s devastating, gripping novel, the voice of the wife takes hold of the reader from the outset, she is calm and rational, appearing reasonable on the outside, all the while anger and rage builds inside her like a furnace. We enter the narrative in this safe space, then feel it slowly disintegrate as that raging inferno can no longer be contained and erupts, spilling hazardously into reality.

In contrast Starnone’s protagonist Vanda, through excerpts from a few of the letters she wrote Aldo, that he rereads  40 years after they were written, is angry, opinionated and doesn’t hold back from sharing any of the catastrophic thoughts that come to her, about the damage he has done and is doing to her and the children.

The narrative structure is interesting, as the story is set around the departure and return of Vanda and Aldo from a holiday at the sea. They are in their 70’s and for the week they will be away, they’ve asked their adult children, who no longer speak to each other, to feed the cat.

The three parts of the novel encompass, book one, the letters Vanda wrote when her husband left her, book two, the departure for the holiday and the return narrated by Aldo, within which he deconstructs the marriage and his part in it. The return to their apartment and the circumstance they find themselves in, evoking in him a long period of contemplation, going over events, memories and perceptions as he tries to understand how it all came to this.

I held back. In general, faced with difficult situations, I slow down; I try to avoid making the wrong moves. She, on the other hand, after a moment of bewilderment, dives headfirst into terror, fighting it with everything she’s got. She’s always behaved this way, ever since I’ve known her, and it was what she did now.

There is one scene where Aldo discovers an old photo of Vanda and it is as if he sees her for the first time, he sees something of the essence of her in youth, and now fifty years later, has a partial realisation of what he has lost, of what he has failed to see, and by doing so, has extinguished in her.

I recognised the features of that period: flimsy clothes she sewed herself, scuffed shoes with worn-out heels, no make-up on her large eyes. What I didn’t recognise on the other hand, was her youth. This, then, was what was alien to me: her youth. In those pictures Vanda radiated a glow which – I discovered – I had no recollection of, not even a spark that allowed me to say: Yes she used to be like this.

And book three, narrated by the daughter Anna, on one of the alternate days she has agreed to feed the cat, convincing her brother who she hasn’t seen since he was favoured in her Aunt’s will years ago, to meet her there.

The novel is called Ties, a translation of Lacci or laces, which has a double meaning in Italian, meaning both the cords that we use to tie shoes and the connections or bonds between people and or things, a metaphor for the ties that continue to bind despite separation, distance, change, age. There are attempts to let go, by all the characters, attempts to distance, to free themselves of the bonds that tie, but none that really succeed. In some, the attempt to separate will result in the creation of new and more numerous ties, the son Sandro moves from one relationship to another, each resulting in another child.

It’s an intriguing novel, with what I felt was a slightly bizarre and unexpected ending. The story invoked immediate comparisons with The Days of Abandonment, however the experience of reading this novel was like viewing these lives from the outside, like looking at things from a distance, provoking a more questioning response, whereas Ferrante’s novel succeeds in transporting the reader into the narrative, it’s more cathartic and slightly terrifying, as she brings you to the edge of sanity, making you sense the danger in letting that temporary instability be observed by the outside world, a situation that many women in past centuries were indeed committed to asylums for, provoked as they often were by the cool, insensitive abandonment of the patriarch.

P.S. After reading the novel and writing the review, I’ve since seen a couple of articles that speculate 1), that Domenico Starnone might be Elena Ferrante (I don’t think so) and 2), that he may be married to the woman who uses the pseudonym, Elena Ferrante. Whether or not the latter is true, there is indeed a link between the two novels, the literary comparison of more interest than the pursuit of the personal lives of authors who wish to remain anonymous and separate from their work.

Note: Thank you to the publisher Europa Editions, for providing me with a copy of Ties.

The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (Italy) tr. Ann Goldstein #WITMonth

ItalyOn the day when the nation is shocked and grieving after a devastating earthquake, that has destroyed entire villages and resulted in a significant loss of life, I don’t know how appropriate it is to share their literature, perhaps in the case of this particular novel, it serves to put things in perspective.

For while the protagonist of this novel may have felt her world was coming to an end, knowing how quickly and without warning life and home can be snatched away, might prompt us get over the more indulgent grievances of the heart.

Days of AbandonmentA national bestseller for almost an entire year, The Days of Abandonment shocked and captivated its Italian public when first published.

“One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.”

Like an orchestrated composition that begins with a quiet, solo voice and rises to a crescendo with the addition of more instruments, Ferrante’s novel and its female character move from reasonable, melodic harmony to loud, discordant cacophony.

“I listened to him attentively, I contradicted him calmly, I didn’t ask him questions of any kind nor did I dictate ultimatums, I tried only to convince him that he could always count on me. But I have to admit that, behind that appearance, a wave of anguish and rage was growing that frightened me.”

Like the stages of grief, The Days of Abandonment charts the stages of decline following a lost love, beginning with the irony of a love more fierce than it was when it was present, then the deterioration, as the realisation and reality of life without it comes to pass for this mother of two children, cooped up in her apartment one hot August, with only the sad figure of a morose cellist living downstairs to observe her descent.

The abandoned woman acts terribly reasonably, only to deteriorate into desperate disillusionment. Like madness descending, the loss of love and the feeling of abandonment rages through the various emotions like a tempest, no person or animal immune to its violent, destructive force.

“The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

It is shocking in how far the madness delves and astounding as it reaches a turning point and she is able slowly to perceive herself and the illusion of what she thought she had, for what it really was.

“It was really true, there was no longer anything about him that could interest me. He wasn’t even a fragment of the past, he was only a stain, like the print of a hand left years ago on a wall.”

Elena Ferrante observes the minutiae of human emotion and suffering, the obstinacy of a grasping, possessive love, the effect of our behaviour on those around us and the resilience of the human spirit.

Exhausting, terrifying, ferocious, we are both beast and beauty.

Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, whose true identity remains a mystery, author of the four novels in the Neapolitan tetralogy My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and The Story of the Lost Child. The Days of Abandonment was the first of her novels to be translated into English by Europa Editions in 2005.

Buy The Days of Abandonment via Book Depository

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The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante tr. Ann Goldstein

The final book in the Neapolitan Novels tetralogy that began with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant FriendThe Story of the Lost Child continues the saga of two compelling woman, Elena and Lila, childhood friends and now single mothers, back living in the neighbourhood of their humble origins.

At the end of Book 3 Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena was in the midst of a crisis, unable to think or act in anyone’s best interests, rather, she was lead by the wild palpitations of a lust driven heart and appeared to be prepared to risk all she had fought so hard and for so long to rise above and gain.

Now with everything collapsing around her, she returns to her roots, where things are as likely to be in disorder and chaos, but in a place where she feels safe, it is familiar, known.

Elena’s daughters must adapt to a less pampered life, although their mother wishes that they, like her, acquire sufficient education to allow them choices about where and how they might live. Elena and Lila’s children present them both with significant challenges, causing them to move closer together in some respects and further apart when tragedy strikes hard.

As with the previous books, Elena is never quite sure of Lila’s intentions, questioning her motives when she appears helpful and suspicious of her intentions when she informs her of gossip. It is a characteristic of their friendship that has existed since the beginning, an aspect Elena never fully unravels and keeps her always on guard.

‘I went home depressed. I couldn’t drive out the suspicion that she was using me, just as Marcello had said. She had sent me out to risk everything and counted on that bit of fame I had to win her war, to complete her revenge, to silence all her feelings of guilt.’

Naples Earthquake 1980It is the 1980’s and one of the turning points in Lila’s deterioration is the earthquake that occurred on November 23, 1980 killing 3,000 and rendering 300,000 of Naples inhabitants homeless. It is used as a powerful metaphor for the destabilisation that occurs in Elena and Lila’s lives.

‘It expelled the habit of stability and solidity, the confidence that every second would be identical to the next, the familiarity of sounds and gestures, the certainty of recognising them. A sort of suspicion of every form of reassurance took over, a tendency to believe in every prediction of bad luck, an obsessive attention to signs of the brittleness of the world, and it was hard to take control again. Minutes and minutes and minutes that wouldn’t end.’

Elena has always sought her independence and intended to create a career as a writer, it is only when she moves back to the neighbourhood that she realises with greater urgency that she must be autonomous.

‘It was then that a part of me – only a part – began to emerge that consciously, without particularly suffering, admitted that it couldn’t really count on him. It wasn’t just the old fear that he would leave me; rather it seemed to me an abrupt contraction of perspective. I stopped looking into the distance, I began to think that in the immediate future I couldn’t expect from Nino more than what he was giving me, and that I had to decide if it was enough.’

Book Four brings the girls full circle into the adult world where the relationships of childhood and dramas of their youth play out in a more dangerous playground, where boyhood pranks have evolved into criminal activities and the annoying habits of children transform into the damaging actions of adults with far-reaching and destructive consequences.

They are no longer observers of the world around them, they are perpetrators of events and circumstances that will affect the next generation, their children. Though they never wanted it and put all their energy into trying to prevent it, in many ways, they have begun to resemble the already departed, those they worked so hard not to become.

Book Four brings Elena and Lila’s stories back to where it all began, reacquainting us with the story’s beginning, of memories and possessions that have endured, that contain within them that sense of unease alongside the familiar, the two coexist and can not be separated, even in maturity. It is a conclusion of sorts, as thought-provoking as we have come to expect previously, not quite giving in to that alternative literary tradition of tying things up neatly.

I read the first three books in close proximity, each volume adding to the compulsion to want to re-enter their lives and discover what would happen next.  The longer gap in awaiting this final novel meant it took a little longer to pick up the pace, suggesting it might be a series best read consecutively.

If you haven’t read Elena Ferrante yet, here are links to reviews of the first three books in this series:

The Neapolitan Novels Reviewed

Book 1: My Brilliant Friend

Book 2: The Story of a New Name

Book 3: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay

 

Note: This was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) thank you to the publisher Europa Editions for kindly providing me with a review copy.

 

 

 

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)

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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