This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.
What a thing is Elena Ferrante. Not since the publication of the last Harry Potter novel have I felt so much a part of the literary zeitgeist as when I started reading this book, the first of the unidentified writer’s four Neapolitan Novels, a tetralogy that ended in 2015 with the publication of The Story of the Lost Child.
Sources say they remain unique, vivid, gripping and moving to the end, which is to say I agree that the first instalment is all of those things. It’s unexpected, to find oneself in total agreement with the hype, but it’s happened two times this year, and while there are some small differences between Star Wars: The Force Awakens and My Brilliant Friend, they share the fact that they are the best of what is said about them.
Beginning with a preface by a woman, your narrator, in her sixties, My Brilliant Friend arcs back to the very beginning of a turbulent, original and uncompromisingly intimate friendship between the narrator, Elena “Lenù” Greco, and Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo. Determined to say her piece once and for all about the way things went (for what exact reason is unclear), Elena takes the reader to the streets of Naples, where she was raised and where she first met the wilful, gifted and harshly fascinating Lila.
The primitive violence and social tensions of Naples, not to mention the streets, avenues, storefronts and neighbourhoods, are almost visionary in their vividness. Credit must be paid to an extraordinary translation. Ferrante paints the community and its intermingled families as meticulously as she does captivatingly, and so, as much as this is the story of a single friendship, the friendship (and Elena’s semi-constant weaving of Lila into the world and her way of seeing it) is as a thread leading you through a whole and realised life (Elena’s own) and set of lives – the families Greco, Cerullo, Sarratore, Solara and Caracchi.
There was something unbearable in the things, in the people, in the buildings, in the streets that, only if you reinvented it all, as in a game, became bearable. The essential, however, was to know how to play, and she and I, only she and I, knew how to do it.
As a narrator, Elena is her own woman, and so much more than a fly on the wall. She is experiencing her own puberty, her own confused and sometimes unwelcome forays into sexuality, the breadths and desires of her own intellect and heart. Lila as her companion would not shine so brightly and tug on the heart and mind so fiercely were it not for the subtleties and compassion of the intelligent, realised Elena. The interplay of their friendship, rather than being a matter of fascinated observation, is as a binary star, two stars orbiting so closely that they appear as one, yet flying apart is never out of mind.
It seemed to me—articulated in words of today—that not only did she know how to put things well but she was developing a gift that I was already familiar with: more effectively than she had as a child, she took the facts and in a natural way charged them with tension; she intensified reality as she reduced it to words, she injected it with energy. But I also realized, with pleasure, that, as soon as she began to do this, I felt able to do the same, and I tried and it came easily. This—I thought contentedly—distinguishes me from … all the others.
It would be wrong to say much more than that. The acclaim that this book has received is all deserved. In old Naples, the rule of rivalry and violence is pervasive, and Ferrante writes the blood, tension, poetry, passion, beauty and horror with absolute mastery. The navigation of this world via Elena’s sometimes individual yet always semi-vicarious connection to Lila is mesmerising, but how exactly it will capture you is yours to discover.
… they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.
Perhaps the greatest compliment you can pay this novel is that it ends on a cliffhanger yet feels complete. A phase of a thing is over and another is about to burst to life. Another great compliment would be that though you have spent so long coming to know Elena and Lila, and though you see their gifts and jealousies, and can even begin to fathom the weaknesses of character that compel them sometimes to fail, you cannot predict what will come next. I will devour the remaining Neapolitan Novels in 2016 and it will not take me long at all.