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Tolstoy is my Cat: "Sharp and honest and pulsating with life."

Date: Mar 14 2013

I'm breaking my silence of almost a month for a book I absolutely loved - MY BRILLIANT FRIEND by Elena Ferrante. It tells the story of Elena and Lila, two girls growing up in 1950s Naples, which is as brutal and volatile as you might imagine, and in this book is vividly and evocatively portrayed. The complex friendship that exists between the two girls contains all the elements that I recall from the close friendships of my teens: their bond is combative, competitive, intimate and subject to an ever changing power dynamic, played out across some of the most formative years of their lives. I loved it.

The episodic structure and language are both very classical - my one criticism might be that it needed a little more narrative thrust - but I found that this book had knives hidden within the text - sharp points that made me pause or wince with their perceptiveness - that mimicked the blades that so often flash within the story. Elena Ferrante, whose real identity is only know by her Italian publisher, although it's assumed she's a woman, is a serious, interesting, incisive writer, and I look forward to reading more of her books. I felt that she really cut through to the marrow of relationships and situations, but in a very sympathetic manner, meaning that no-one in this Neopolitan quagmire of vendetta and violent is really blamed or excused, although some are very heavily implicated. This felt like a very close book, like Ferrante has lived this and knows that community and the people within it: that quote about Edith Wharton describing things as familiarly as if she loved them and as lucidly as if she hated them (I'm paraphrasing) actually springs to mind, and feels like it might really apply.

The translation is also very good, save the odd overly heavy or overly short sentence, with some beautiful language choices:

It was an unforgettable moment. We went towards Via Caracciolo, as the wind grew stronger, the sun brighter. Vesuvius was a delicate pastel-coloured shape, at whose base the whitish stones of the city were piled up, with the earth-coloured slice of the Castel dell'Ovo, and the sea. But what a sea. It was very rough, and loud; the wind took your breath away, pasted your clothes to your body and blew the hair off your forehead. We stayed on the other side of the street in a small crowd, watching the spectacle. The waves rolled in like blue metal tubes carrying an egg white foam on their peaks, then broke into a thousand glittering splinters and came up to the street with an oh of wonder and fear from those watching. What a pity that Lila wasn't there.

At times this was not a peaceful read, but I felt it to be sharp and honest and pulsating with life. The ending is spectacular, although you're not going to hear it from me! It also felt very wise in its dealing with the difficulties of growing up, and how the realisation that you've irrevocably changed can be as challenging for you as for those around you, but once life has moved on, there's no going back.The subversion of the title that occurs towards the end also felt masterful. I really recommend this book, and I'm thrilled to read that this is part one of a trilogy.

Bravo all round.

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