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Literary Review: "In novelist Elena Ferrante's hands, being abandoned is not a passive condition. On the contrary, it ushers the heroine of The Days of Abandonment into the most intensely lived weeks of her existence."

Date: Oct 1 2005

from The Literary Review

In novelist Elena Ferrante's hands, being abandoned is not a passive condition. On the contrary, it ushers the heroine of The Days of Abandonment into the most intensely lived weeks of her existence. Left with two children and with little explanation by her husband, Mario, Olga juggles anger, denial, capitulation, and desperation as she seeks to understand her predicament through an exploration of her past-not only her marriage, but the specter of an abandoned woman who haunted her childhood. And yet, to equate the novel's title with a husband's abandonment of a wife is to see only part of the picture. For the most compelling aspect of the story proves to be the danger that Olga will abandon herself-her identity, her sanity, her capacity to live.

Through Olga's acute first-person narration, uncompromising in its self-scrutiny, Ferrante paints her ordeal as both painfully public and severely private. Embodying one extreme is the figure of the poverella, or poor woman, who lived in Olga's building when Olga was a child, and whose noisy, ceaseless grief at being left by her husband was so excessive that it became repellent to the young girl. At the other is the relentless interiority of Olga's anguish, her obsession with fantasizing her husband's new life and questioning her own. The magnitude of Mario's betrayal forces her eye inward, to the minutiae of everyday life; some of the novel's most striking moments are also its simplest, in which Olga instructs herself to perform the banal tasks that once came effortlessly to her: "be careful to salt the pasta, be careful not to salt it twice." As her psychic world narrows, so does her physical one, until she must literally combat death within the walls of her own apartment, and time seems to slow down to draw out the epic nature of her struggle.

Ferrante is one of Italy's most celebrated contemporary authors, though her identity is a secret (the name Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym). The Days of Abandonment is a testament to her ability to navigate searing human emotion and to give it an architecture: the apartment complex, the balcony, the space outside a shop window. But what is perhaps most amazing about this novel, given the depths of suffering Ferrante plumbs, is that she is able to steer her characters toward a point of grace, not beyond pain, but through it.

by Radhika Joneslena


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