Saskia Walker reads her first Elena Ferrante novel – and finds herself entranced, enthralled and utterly frustrated.
I have been familiar with Elena Ferrante’s novels for years. I have seen them on bookshop shelves; on the bedside tables of friends; tucked into a handbag on the train — and yet I had never actually read one myself. This mysterious literary sensation had almost entirely passed me by.
With My Brilliant Friend, the first of the four much-lauded Neapolitan Novels, squeezed into the little library which filled the boot of MT’s MINI as we shook and shuddered over the roads of Europe, we finally arrived in Italy. It was here that I extracted Ferrante’s novel from the precarious, dog-eared and ever-growing pile.
I fully intended, of course, on that sunny afternoon in Liguria, to read only the very first chapter.
Set in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples in the 1950s, Ferrante’s hugely compelling fourth novel is narrated by the young Elena Greco, who recounts her turbulent, lifelong friendship with Lina, whom she calls ‘Lila’ — her brilliant friend.
Brutally honest, at times cruel, at others heartening, Elena’s tale is one of an impoverished childhood and a tough adolescence, the details of which are wrought in clear, precise prose.
For much of the novel, Elena is alternately awestruck and immeasurably frustrated by Lila. Beautiful and intelligent, yet self-centred and almost feral, Lila flouts all those who stand in her way. Elena is left in her shadow.
When the local boys throw stones at them, Lila throws them back. She casts Elena’s doll into a dark and dingy basement when the girls are little, just because she can. At school, however, Lila’s brilliance outshines Elena’s diligence: both girls are put forward for secondary school examinations. Elena studies as hard as she can and her parents scrape the necessary money together. Still, it is Lila who learns Latin faster, borrowing books from the library and striving to outdo Elena.
Elena earns opportunities which her friend is not offered, and the girls begin to see their paths diverge as they reach adolescence.
Living just outside of Naples, it is only very rarely that the girls cross the railroad which marks the boundary between their neighbourhood and the city itself. Elena recalls a day with her father, a hotel porter – the only full day they have ever spent together – in which he takes her into the city for ice cream, and she discovers a world that she hardly knew existed.
Soon, Elena crosses that imaginary line regularly to attend high school: she is one of the few from her neighbourhood to do so. Her bespectacled eyes dart from the wide boulevards to her fashionably dressed counterparts, as she, clad in her one pair of worn-out shoes and clutching second-hand textbooks to her chest, strives to fit in.
The entire novel is an insight into the mind of an endearing young girl: we find ourselves utterly absorbed by it. Elena’s personal struggle – with feeling invisible, being habitually eclipsed by the more flamboyant, petulant Lila, whom she never ceases to (grudgingly) admire – holds us in thrall. It is in portraying this painful honesty, earnestness and teenage awkwardness that Ferrante reveals her eloquence and skill.
Vibrant characters — teachers, grocers, adulterous fathers, frustrated mothers, bullies and naive teenagers — populate Elena’s neighbourhood, which seems in itself an island with unspoken boundaries: separate, yet emblematic of environments which are no doubt replicated the world over.
Ferrante pens the trials and tribulations of individuals and families, their failings and their first loves, in an epic which ends as Elena and Lila reach the cusp of adulthood: one is set to settle in the complex world of petty rivalries and family feuds in which they grew up; the other, we sense, will venture further afield.
The few reflective moments interspersed throughout the volume, in which a modern-day, adult Elena refers to events in the present — centred upon her concerns for Lila, who is missing — reveal that there is far more to come. Three hundred pages in, each rich with detail and vivid with life, and it feels as though we have barely begun.
I turned the final page the next afternoon, entranced, enthralled and utterly frustrated by the ending — surely, the ending of a mere chapter, not an entire novel?
If Ferrante, mysterious as she is, does one thing masterfully, it is to leave you desperate for the next instalment, deeply invested in the life of a narrator who has at once told you everything — and nothing.
Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend was first published in Italian in 2011. Ann Goldstein’s English translation was published by Europa Editions (2012).
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER