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GoodbyeToAllThis: "Ferrante’s writing is crisp and precise, evoking the intensity of childhood and adolescence but without ever being subsumed by them. "

Date: Jun 18 2015

Wow. Holy cow. More please.

Only the fact that I’ve already broken my #TBR20 resolution (twice, if I’m honest, although I have also read 5 books from the list) is stopping me from heading over to Amazon and getting myself the next volume in Elena Ferrante’s trilogy of ‘Neapolitan novels’. I read the first, My Brilliant Friend (Europa Editions, 2012, transl. Anne Goldstein), over the course of one intense day, and it was a revelation.

In short, it’s the story of a childhood friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, growing up in a poor Neapolitan neighbourhood post WWII. And it really is a remarkable ode to the power and overwhelming intensity of childhood friendships; as narrated by Elena, the relationship with Lila is clearly the defining one in her life. Their precociousness – Lila’s in particular – sets them apart from both their peers and the adults in their impoverished community, where violence is standard and literacy not. In competition with Lila, Elena finds the drive to succeed, but when Lila’s schooling ends with elementary school Elena has to work out how to continue alone, trying to balance her academic success with the neighbourhood world she still inhabits.

The world which Elena and Lila live in is a hard one and Elena tells us that it is ‘a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered, and sometimes people died […] our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection.’ Even as children they are not exempt from the violence all around them; after Lila’s arm is broken by her father the only reflection is that ‘Fathers could do that and other things to impudent girls’.

Within the neighbourhood Lila is in control, a fearless, almost feral child with ‘a gaze that appeared not very childlike and perhaps not even human’ who is determined to overcome her circumstances. The dynamics of the relationship, where Lila leads and Elena follows, are turned on their head the first time they venture outside, when Lila’s nerve gives out while Elena has the revelation that ‘distance – I discovered for the first time – extinguished in me every tie and every worry’. It is through education – at the insistence of her elementary school teacher, Elena is allowed to progress – that the boundaries of this world can be stretched, but for Lila’s father this is an impossibility, and so at ten years old Lila must leave school and begin the life it is expected of her to live.

The passions and uncertainty of childhood are captured brilliantly; the fear and determination, the utter seriousness with which they take the world are all there on the page. As they progress into adolescence and their paths diverge, with Elena continuing through first middle and then high school, there develop new tensions between them. Not only the girls but the whole community is changing, ‘quivering, arching upwards as if to change its characteristics, not to be known by the accumulated hatreds, tensions, ugliness but, rather, to show a new face.’ There is new prosperity to be had – cars, electricity, even, if a girl plays her cards right and marries well, ‘hot water that came from the taps, and a house not rented but owned.’

Negotiating this world is now Lila’s task and adulthood seems suddenly thrust upon her. 14 is not too young to be engaged to a man in his 20s, and Lila turns her precociousness to making the most of the limited opportunities she has. Elena on the other hand must balance the demands of two competing worlds, while struggling without Lila, who ‘knew how to be autonomous whereas I needed her’. The world outside is an unknown place and seems filled with possibilities, but Elena is also a teenage girl who wants nothing more than to fit in at home, to be accepted and not to be left behind by Lila who she sees as entering womanhood before her.

I could go on and on about this book. It is the story of a friendship, but it is so much more than that. It brilliantly captures the time and place and presents the reader with a fully realized world, full of conflicts and history and danger and also love and friendship. Ferrante’s writing is crisp and precise, evoking the intensity of childhood and adolescence but without ever being subsumed by them. I am quite sure that this will be the best book I read this month and it will be in strong competition for my favourite of the year – and that’s in a year of highly impressive books.