This book stuck in my hands – it followed me from the outskirts of Naples, to Pozzuoli and then to a small boat anchored off the island of Procida. I didn’t want to put it down.
The story, and its complex families of characters, are webbed together through anxiety and passion, and portrayed so clearly you can’t look away.
Elena Ferrante understands that to know someone it’s best to start where they began – with My Brilliant Friend she does that, and does it twice. She uses two protagonists, the ‘my’ and the ‘friend’, and through this pair she punches open the condition of a whole city – Naples, Italy.
The narrator is Elena Greco whose childhood is introduced through her easy aptitude for school and a fascination with Lila, her brilliant friend, who is equally intelligent but in a different way:
“Her quickness of mind was like a hiss, a dart, a lethal bite.”
The author paints their story with intense emotional strokes that follow their lives through home and school to the relationships that define the whole community.
Elena Ferrante sweeps the city across her pages with writing so clean it works like a blade that cuts down to the heart. Fresh life pulses through the book but at every turn is threatened by personal family rivalries, by criminality, deceit and the shadows of a past that is never discussed.
“And they thought that what had happened before was past and, in order to live quietly, they placed a stone on top of it, and so, without knowing it, they continued it, they were immersed in the things of before, and we kept them inside us, too.”
Then there is violence. An example is New Year’s Eve when the young girls, now in their early teens, are invited to a neighbourhood party that erupts into a local battle for firework glory. It ends in gunfire – the consequence of the pent up rivalry, of the pride, poverty and wealth that the book, and Naples, lay side by side.
In the midst of these lives Ferrante offers us three paths: wealth, violence and education – all possible escapes to new futures. Through Lila and Elena she puts the alternatives before us:
We watch the girls as they reach their decisions:
“As a result, either we, too, had to make money, more than the Solaras, or, to protect ourselves against the brothers, we had to do them serious harm.”
By the end of this book, the first of four, Lila and Elena have grown through puberty to young womanhood, and the choices that face them remain the same but are increasingly complex and the outcomes less predictable. As readers we follow them into the maze – invited not to judge so much as to understand.
You don’t have to know Naples to love My Brilliant Friend – the enjoyment comes from being part of this vivid community, part of a 1950s city, where relationships are the dominant currency and violence a familiar visitor.
The final pages leave all in suspense … a pause before the start of the next novel: The Story of a New Name.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (Book One of the Neapolitan Novels)
Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein
Published by Europa Editions, 214 West 29th Street, New York NY 10001
First publication 2012
Eighth printing 2014
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2016