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Material Witness: “It's difficult for me to exaggerate how moving, how beautiful and how thought-provoking these novels are, how piercing Ferrante's insight is.

Date: Aug 7 2015

The night before I finished Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third book in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series, I did not sleep well. Throughout the night I dreamed of Naples and of Florence; of salami processing plants and long Mediterranean beaches; of Lila and Lenú, the two friends at the centre of these remarkable novels, who climbed out of Elena Ferrante's bewitching pages and straight into my head.

To describe these books as engaging doesn't even come close. They remind me most vividly of a sporting fixture that the spectator is utterly absorbed in, so involved that they make physical movements as if wishing to make that tackle or take that pass. When I was in them I was utterly consumed, reading both books within the space of about 40 hours to the exclusion of just about everything else.

At the conclusion of the second novel, The Story of a New Name (TSOANN), emotionally exhausted by the loves and lives of Lenú and Lila I decided to take a break from them. That resolve lasted just a few hours and now the promised fourth and the final installment, The Story of the Lost Child - due to be published in English by Europa Editions in September cannot come quickly enough.

TSOANN picks up where My Brilliant Friend (review) leaves off, at Lila's teenage wedding to Stefano, the grocer. It is a defining moment for both women, setting them on diverging paths. While the high-flying Lenú continues her studies, ultimately bound for university, Lila (initally at least) is bound to the life of a Neapolitan housewife where she must come to terms with both the new luxuries (a bath with hot running water) and the vicissitudes of a situation that is determinedly male-dominated.

For long passages of both these books, Lila and Lenú are separated by geography, circumstance and the ebb and flow of their tempestuous yet enduring friendship, and while they often go months without speaking, their bond acts as anchor to their story, and to varyied degrees, their lives. Lenú, away from Naples and the neighbourhood, particularly feels the pull and with many of the important decisions in her life she references how Lila might react. Lila, her life largely a continuation of the uncompromising whirlwind of her childhood, appears less bound to Lenú but often finds her friend at decisive or dangerous moments.

As the girls grow older so the forces that had shaped their lives as children - the politics of the neighborhood, City and state; the social and economic conditions of their families - begin to become forces that touch them directly and that they, in turn, influence. The political becomes the personal and vice versa, and so their stories continue to be told alongside that of the painful growth of post-War Italy. It makes for richly textured, deep and bountiful books.

It's difficult for me to exaggerate how moving, how beautiful and how thought-provoking these novels are, how piercing Ferrante's insight is. If you've not read them yet, there's a treat in store.

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