This noisy new novel by Italian writer Elena Ferrante is a village. The tale of two girls growing up near Naples in the late 1950s, it is crowded with tininess and everybody knows everybody else's business.
An index of characters stretches to nine families and includes helpful shorthand such as "grocer in the family store" and "ogre of fairytales". But a brief note about the author simply says Ferrante was born in Naples and is the author of three other novels. Googling her won't reveal much more.
And you will want to know more because no one has a voice quite like Ferrante's. Her gritty, ruthlessly frank novels roar off the page with a barbed fury, like an attack that is also a defence. "What a mistake it had been to entrust the sense of myself to his gratifications," writes the narrator, a woman left by her husband, in Ferrante's 2005 novel The Days of Abandonment.
Ferrante's fictions are fierce, unsentimental glimpses at the way a woman is constantly under threat, her identity submerged in marriage, eclipsed by motherhood, mythologised by desire. Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you'll have some idea of how explosive these works are.
My Brilliant Friend is retrospectively narrated by Elena, a woman living in present-day Turin. It conjures a sharp-elbowed childhood near Naples in the 50s, when talk of communists was still fresh and most girls finished school well before high school. It is around this latter pivotal point that the book orbits. Elena, the daughter of a porter, is bright and hardworking, but on approaching adolescence she prepares herself for the end of schooling. Meanwhile, her friend Lila, the wildish, sharp-tongued youngest child of a shoemaker, is a kind of street-smart genius.
Ferrante tells their story with masterful patience. In the first half of the book, the girls exist in a kind of mythic state. Lila is the brave one, Elena's protector and wedge into the wider world.
"Lila would thrust her hand and then her whole arm into the black mouth of a manhole," Elena tells us, "and I, in turn, immediately did the same, my heart pounding, hoping that cockroaches wouldn't run over my skin, that the rats wouldn't run over my skin."
Lila forces her friend to conquer her fear of Don Achille, a vaguely criminal neighbour whom the two had turned into an ogre in their minds. She stands up to bullies; she stares down perverts.
Naples in the 50s is the kind of place where protection is necessary. "I feel no nostalgia for our childhood," Elena says. "It was full of violence." She refers not just to the screaming arguments between men and women, to the bar fights and brutal, sudden scythe of disease, to the gunbattles of the Camorra, but mostly to women scratching and tearing at one another:
While men were always getting furious they calmed down in the end; women, who appeared to be silent, acquiescent, when they were angry flew into a rage that had no end.
In this context Elena's friendship with Lila is something sacred but unstable. You keep waiting for it to explode. There will be fractures that are barely detectable at in the tale's beginnings. It's not clear, until a teacher singles out Elena as deserving of later schooling, that Lila comes from a poorer family. For a while the two keep pace, but a gap appears. Soon Elena is far more advanced in her studies. She will go far.
And then there is the violence. The beatings Lila endures - from her brother, from her father - take a toll. She turns down one marriage proposal, to the fury of her father.
We know, as the book goes on, that much as Lila claims she will never marry, she will do precisely that. She will have children early. She will stay in the village that by the book's end has become a choking embrace.
And Elena will leave. Once the shy, awkward one in the shadows, Elena has become the brilliant friend.
In Ferrante's hands this evolution is as gradual and inevitable as the tipping of summer twilight into dark. There is, of course, a deep sadness to this book. To survive, one often has to leave. Run. Turn away from the things that made you, ideas and places that are easy to hate but impossible to stop loving.
In My Brilliant Friend, the reclusive Ferrante does something hard but true. It goes back to the before and by looking at it clearly, with humour and warmth and rage, loves it.