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The Age: "ask uncomfortable questions about how we live, how we love, how we singe an existence in a deeply flawed world that expects pretty acquiescence from its women."

Date: Nov 16 2013

One of the most astounding - and mysterious - contemporary Italian novelists available in translation, Elena Ferrante, unfolds the tumultuous inner lives of women in her thrillingly menacing stories of lost love, negligent mothers and unfulfilled desires.

Volumes one and two of the Neapolitan trilogy, the first of Ferrante's novels published in Australia and translated by Ann Goldstein, chronicle a humble neighbourhood and changing society through the trajectory of two seemingly average girls.

My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena's present-day discovery that her lifelong friend is missing. Sixty-six-year-old Lila has erased herself, even excising her image from photographs. In response, Elena recreates Lila anew on the page.

What follows is a compulsive joint history of the girls that inspires affection and revulsion. As the title suggests, Elena defines herself through the filter of her friend, giving Lila an immense power to shape their personalities.

This striking novel documents Lila's fearlessness and desire to set the world aright, according to her enigmatic principles. The true friendship begins after Lila throws Elena's beloved doll through a grate accessible only to the town ogre. She then takes Elena's hand as together they confront their greatest fear.

Blonde and studious, Elena shines when compared with the scrawny Lila, with her dirty clothes and filthy mouth, until the teacher discovers that Lila has taught herself to read. Elena then forever measures herself, unsuccessfully, against her friend.

Although the girls' paths fork - Elena heads for middle school and early puberty, while skinny Lila mends shoes - they continue to need each other, if only to view the ways their alternate realities unfold. Elena's devotion borders on obsession; Lila's appears at moments of terror. Although still children, they must discover how to traverse the world of men and their own raw sexuality. Ferrante writes with clear, unadorned and confessional prose that inflicts on the reader the thrill and dread of living in a world half understood.

The end of My Brilliant Friend leaves the girls suspended in peril all the more terrifying because it remains unnamed. The Story of a New Name picks up almost immediately at Lila's wedding, where the first book ends, but its tone shifts, giving the effect of a rebirth during the freeze-frame that separates the two volumes, as though the portal of marriage has changed not only a name but the state of being of all girls of their generation. While Lila reigns over the neighbourhood during her engagement, bingeing on expensive dresses, her status plummets to that of unhappy wife as soon as she seals her union with the wealthy grocer. At 16, she is trapped, her womb the subject of conversation, while her own mother ignores her battered face.

Meanwhile, Elena juggles her first tastes of illicit physical love with her impulse to remain top student, although she has no example of an alternate future her schooling might provide. The best she can envision - after slaving through Latin and Greek - is to marry her mechanic boyfriend and pump petrol until she has babies.

Ferrante imbues the large cast of characters with machinations that surface in dramatic ways. Their connections to one another shift, as though their very persons (duplicitous even to themselves) are reincarnated, like chess pieces, once they hit certain marks.

What sets these girls apart, and transforms what might become a personal story of hemmed-in females fighting against a patriarchal society, is the spirit of small - and large - revolts each one enacts that subtly crack the foundation of their community, where women are told little and punished for misunderstanding. Their revolts - and their squabbles - become politically and morally charged. At stake is the nature of belonging, of shedding the prescribed self, and of the shameful comfort of corruption.

With frustrating impotence, we watch Lila's story unfurl; only Elena, with her education and increasing distance from the claustrophobic community, can attempt to understand their possibilities and buck against them. That is, until Lila - always ahead of everyone, despite herself - challenges the rules and shatters lives. These two novels - uncomfortable and compelling - mark the beginning of what is destined to become a lasting Italian classic that transcends place, even while commemorating it.

Almost nothing is known about the writer called Elena Ferrante, including her real name, making her even more reclusive than, say, Pynchon or Salinger, which is refreshing in an industry that desires celebrity of its writers.

Although the first two Neapolitan novels - each full, if not complete in itself - are less fierce than her previous ones, they move far from contrivance, logic or respectability to ask uncomfortable questions about how we live, how we love, how we singe an existence in a deeply flawed world that expects pretty acquiescence from its women. In all their beauty, their ugliness, their devotion and deceit, these girls enchant and repulse, like life, like our very selves.

-Jennifer Levasseur

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