My Brilliant Friend is Italian author Elena Ferrante’s fourth novel in translation to English, and the first of a trilogy set to chart the lives of two friends, Elena and Lila. Born into poor families in 1950s Naples, the girls from an early age provoke in each other the habit of questioning a world that affords them little agency.
As they grow, Elena narrates with excruciating honesty her insecurities, competitiveness and agonising sense of relativity to her extraordinary friend. But the story, for all it centres around the very things that curtail the characters’ lives – the shabby, peripheral neighbourhood, with its long culture of family politics and feuds, of codes of power upheld by an almost mundane violence – is pacey and unpredictable.
Ferrante bewitches with her tiny, intricately drawn world – a world about which Elena feels revulsion, even fear, and certainly a desire to escape or transcend. But it’s also one she understands, and My Brilliant Friend journeys fearlessly into some of that murkier psychological territory, where questions of individual identity are inextricable from circumstance and the ever-changing identities of others.