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Tony's Reading List: "violent and breathtaking"

Date: Jun 23 2014

Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Trilogy has been getting rave reviews from just about everyone who has read the first two books (My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name) - everyone, that is, apart from this year's IFFP judges, who didn't think the second book worthy of a place on their longlist. Still, everyone else is keenly awaiting the third volume, out later this year, and while I'm itching to get my hands on it, I thought I'd scratch the itch by trying another of the elusive Ms. Ferrante's works...


*****

The Days of Abandonment (translated by Ann Goldstein, review copy courtesy of Europa Editions) is a shorter novel than the other two I've read, but it packs a lot into its 188 pages. The story begins with a bombshell, when Olga, a Neapolitan living in Turin, is informed by her husband that he is leaving her. With that, Mario walks out of the apartment, and his shattered wife is left to adjust to a life without him.


While she initially attempts to deal with events calmly and rationally, this facade soon crumbles, and her fiery southern nature comes through. She becomes more aggressive and louder, taking her anger out on innocent bystanders. However, it's only when she finds out the true reason behind Mario's departure that she really begins to unravel...


The Days of Abandonment is an extremely emotional novel, a story which is by turns intense, passionate and violent. Olga is a woman completely thrown by an unexpected event, unable to comprehend why exactly her husband has left her. She begins to blame herself and also deludes herself into believing he'll be back, despite knowing full well that the break is for good.


The break-up has a devastating effect on her, emotionally and mentally, as she begins a descent into madness, becoming a different person:


"I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully. I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity."

p.26 (Europa Editions, 2013)


This complete change of character brings her to do things she normally never would, and what ensues is violence - and sudden, random sex...


The calm collected woman of the start of the novel can no longer think straight. She is unable to remember the smallest detail, forgetting whether she turned off the stove or not. The frustration she feels boils over, ans she lashes out at her kids (and the poor dog) as she, and her apartment, spiral into sickness and decay. The broken phone, with random, intermittent hisses, is an apt metaphor for the break with the outside world.


Of course, this is all made worse by the fact Mario is happy without her, returning with a smile and a glow:


"Mario entered loaded with packages. I hadn't seen him for exactly thirty-four days. He seemed younger, better cared for in his appearance, even more rested, and my stomach contracted so painfully that I felt I was about to faint. In his body, in his face, there was no trace of our absence. While I bore - as soon as his startled gaze touched me I was certain of it - all the signs of suffering, he could not hide those of well-being, perhaps of happiness." (p.38)


Olga is resentful, and quite rightly so. After years of love and sacrifice, moving around to support her husband in his career, she has been, quite simply - abandoned...


The writing is excellent, as is the translation, with Goldstein recreating Olga's internal monologue in English, an anguished, desperate cry for justice. It's violent and breathtaking, and often intensely claustrophobic - at times we sympathize, at others we cringe. It makes for extremely uncomfortable reading at times, but it's always compelling, driving the reader on towards the culmination of the tragedy.


Ferrante has certainly succeeded in creating a story of the woes of abandonment, but whose abandonment is it? While it's true that Olga is abandoned, she, in turn, abandons everyone else in her life. She's certainly not a character you can support without reservations. The Days of Abandonment is a still a great tale, though, of the dangers of taking things for granted - and of refusing to accept the inevitable, no matter how hard it is to swallow...