The Neapolitan series (of which this is the first) has popped up on my radar a few times over the past year or so. I’ve seen a multitude of blog reviews (generally fairly positive) and a number of press and TV pieces speculating on Ferrante’s true identity (when really I don’t think she could have made her wishes any plainer). The upshot of it all is that I’ve just been a bit curious to see what all the Ferrante fuss is about. On the face of it, My Brilliant Friend isn’t really the sort of book that I would normally seek out – what with the old lady cover design and the fact that a friend vaguely mentioned that it was about ’friendship’ – but you know what? I liked it. No one is more surprised than I am.
“I feel no nostalgia for our childhood; it was full of violence. Every sort of thing happened, at home and outside, every day, but I don’t recall having ever thought that the life we had there was particularly bad. Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.”
The story begins in the present day as Elena, our narrator, receives the not altogether unexpected news that her childhood friend Lila has disappeared. The rest of the story is told in one long flashback as Elena reflects back on a childhood spent in the poverty stricken slums of post-war Naples. She and Lila first meet while playing with their dolls in the courtyard of their apartment building; by the time this instalment of the series ends the girls are sixteen and navigating very different paths in life. It’s an almost forensically detailed, moment by moment, analysis of the constantly shifting dynamic between them as they’re pushed together and pulled apart over the years.
It’s a compelling read because Elena’s relationship with Lila is kind of electrifying. They vacillate between resentment and jealousy one minute and a fierce, destructive sort of loyalty the next.
“Do you love him?”
She said seriously, “Very much.”
“More than your parents, more than Rino?”
“More than everyone, but not more than you.”
Elena is quiet and studious and understands herself only in relation to her friendship with Lila. Lila likes breaking things, says Elena, and that seems true. She’s ferocious, a force of nature and, like Elena, I’m slightly in awe of her. Ultimately life unjustly bestows very different opportunities on the girls and while one is given a daily escape from the slums, the other is condemned to remain. It ends with a wedding, a wonderfully tense wedding in fact, and a final sentence that feels a bit like a surprise slap in the face.
Ferrante paints an intensely colourful, almost cinematic, portrait of a slum community in the shadow of the war. Shoemakers, grocers and seamstresses appear side by side amongst profiteers and thugs. The novel is so densely populated that at first I struggled to distinguish between some of the families and had to rely on the supplied character list to help me out. But after a bit of perseverance I was so caught up in the story that I didn’t even notice that I’d stopped needing to check. I love the way that Ferrante slices together the day-to-day coming of age parts of the plot – exams, pimples, boyfriends, rows with parents – with the violence that seems to be inherent in the setting. There’s domestic violence, a murder, brawls in the street, family feuds, the menacing Solara brothers… It’s artfully done.
I know it’s the worst of all the clichés, but I really found it hard to put this book down. In part I think this is because the two central characters, Lila in particular, are drawn so well. They feel like people you know. A lot of the credit also goes, of course, to Ferrante’s writing. It’s not lyrical or poetic but it’s precise. Every turn of phrase, every word, gives the impression that it’s been specially chosen for the exact something that it will bring to the scene. Nothing is superfluous. For someone who very much favours standalone novels this was a bit of a surprise to me. I’m going to put the next one on my library list and we’ll see where we go from here. The reviews for the later books all seem to be pretty complimentary so I’m hopeful.