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Heavenali: "Questions of education and the aspirations of leaving behind the place you come from, are juxtaposed with the fates of those who never stray far beyond the street they were born."

Date: May 10 2015

It was only a few weeks ago that I read My Brilliant Friend, happily immersing myself in the sometimes brutal Neapolitan world of Elena and Lila. Before I had finished that much talked about novel I had already ordered books two and three in the series. Last weekend – a long bank holiday weekend here in the UK – seemed a great time to start The Story of a New Name, these books aren’t small.

“Everything in the world was in precarious balance, pure risk, and those who didn’t agree to take the risk wasted away in a corner, without getting to know life.”

As The Story of a New Name opens Elena recalls how in the mid 1960’s Lila gave her a box of diaries which recount the story of her life with Stefano. From there Elena takes up the story of herself and Lila – exactly where My Brilliant Friend left us – at the wedding of her sixteen year old friend. The opening couple of chapters recount some quite horrible domestic abuse, which transports the reader immediately back into this tough Italian neighbourhood, where women often grimly accept the most terrible treatment at the hands of the men in their lives. Lila has married local business man Stefano Carracci, the son of Don Achille, who had inspired such fairy-tale fears in the two girls when they were children, and who had been murdered several years earlier. On her wedding day, Lila is made aware that her husband has done a deal with the Solara family – whom Lila passionately detests. Elena watches from the side-lines, immediately aware that Lila’s marriage is in trouble before it has even begun.

The treatment that Lila is subjected to by her husband is horrific, and I didn’t much like reading about it, but Lila is tough, her will seemingly tougher than the blows and brutality she receives. Strangely enough I don’t always like Lila – she is a fascinating character, selfish, wilful and unwise – she’s not always sympathetic. She is a truly complex product of the environment that she grew up in, and the things that happen to her, and so she remains fascinating to read about and ultimately you can’t help but cheer her on. Had Lila been written as some kind of tortured saint, she would have been far less interesting.

“We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us. As a result, since Stefano was not the hateful Marcello but the young man to whom she had declared her love, whom she had married, and with whom she had had decided to live forever, she assumed complete responsibility for her choice. And yet it didn’t add up. In my eyes Lila was Lila, not an ordinary girl of the neighbourhood. Our mothers, after they were slapped by their husbands, did not have that expression of calm disdain. They despaired, they wept, they confronted their man sullenly, they criticized him behind his back, and yet, more or less, they continued to respect him (my mother, for example, plainly admired my father’s devious deals). Lila instead displayed an acquiescence without respect.”

While Lila is adjusting to married life; living in an apartment with hot running water and four or five rooms – sheer luxury to Elena and Lila – Elena is finishing high school. Lila was always the more brilliant, natural student, but her studies stopped with elementary school, Elena has carried on, an intelligent girl, success doesn’t come without a lot of hard work for Elena. There has always been a fierce competitiveness between the girls that drives Elena ever on. This one of the key elements of their relationship is a recurring theme.

Following Lila’s marriage there is a time when Elena doesn’t study as hard as she usually does. Spending more and more time with Antonia her boyfriend, trying to ignore her infatuation for Nino Sarratore, the railway porter poet’s brilliant son, Elena’s concentration suffers. Lila is expected to have an heir – and it seems everyone is waiting for the happy news, but as Lila continues to attempt to resist her husband – fruitlessly – she believes her body refuses to carry his child. The doctor prescribes sun, sea and rest.

naples2Some wonderful summer weeks holidaying on Ischia are among the happiest that Lila and Elena spend together, but they are weeks which demonstrate to Lila how wrong for her the life she is leading is. Lila takes incredible risks in her behaviour; Elena and Lila’s mother are both terrified that Stefano – who arrives on Ischia each weekend – will hear of how she spends her time when he isn’t around. Lila and Elena’s relationship has always been one of rivalry as well as friendship, and it is on Ischia that Lila takes from under Elena’s nose the one thing she wants. Ischia heralds a huge change in the girls relationship – when they return to Naples, Elena throws herself into her studies again, and she doesn’t see Lila much for a while. Lila’s life is complicated by secrets, domestic disharmony and the business interests of her husband and the Solaras.

“She was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”

Elena works hard, and following the suggestion of a visiting teacher; applies to a university in Pisa where she can study for free. Here she will have a room of her own in which to put books, and work in peace, for Elena the world is opening up a little. However Elena finds herself in a world she is not quite fitted for, here her Neapolitan accent is ridiculed, and she shields herself by associating with those who are an accepted part of the new society in which she moves.

Along with the intense and ever changing relationship between these two young women, society is very much at the heart of these novels. Questions of education and the aspirations of leaving behind the place you come from, are juxtaposed with the fates of those who never stray far beyond the street they were born. This is a superb sequel to My Brilliant Friend, a big vibrant (470+ pages) noisy novel peopled with unforgettable characters.