War & Turpentine (2013) by Stefan Hertmans

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We turn tough and get sentimental; we laugh as we cry; our life’s a waking slumber, a slumberous wake; we quarrel with our arms around each other; we lash out at each other while shrugging our shoulders; no part of our bodies or minds remains intact; we breathe as long as live and live merely because we are breathing, as long as it lasts. 

Before the Booker International long-list came out earlier this year I hadn’t heard of Stefan Hertmans but I immediately added some of the finalists, including this novel, to my ever growing to-read list as soon as the news came out. I heard so many positive things about it in the months that followed but resisted getting myself a copy until I went to the library to collect Silkworm a week or two ago and it just happened to be prominently displayed on the neighbouring shelf. Obviously it was destiny.

It took me a little while to get through War & Turpentine; not because it’s a particularly dense book but because it soon became clear that this was one worth taking my time over. It’s a strange novel that seems to straddle a couple of genres but essentially it’s based on the memories of the writer’s grandfather, Urbain Martein, which were written down in three notebooks in the later years of his life. The notebooks were passed to Hertmans on Martein’s death but not read until three decades later. In the first and last parts of the novel Hertmans combs over his grandfather’s life and work pre- and post-war: a poor childhood in Ghent, his father’s career restoring frescoes in churches, his early training in an iron foundry, art school, love, marriage and eventual death. Cutting through Hertman’s story is Urbain’s personal account of his experiences in the Great War, as they were written down in painstaking detail many years later. This is the backbone of the novel and its looming presence colours everything you read before and after.

It’s a little difficult to tell where the line between fiction and memoir really lies here, particularly because Hertmans illustrates his story with images of his grandfather’s sketches, paintings by the great masters he loved and photographs of the places he knew. I think this might be one of the things I liked most about this novel though. It’s almost like Hertmans deliberately allows the edges between art and real life to become a bit blurred because, for his grandfather, they were part of the same story. It occasionally makes for some quite painful reading but in amongst the poverty of Urbain’s childhood and the grim horror of the trenches Hertmans shines a light on moments that have the power to both devastate you and uplift you at the same time. One short scene, which takes place in a  small dockyard church while Urbain is in Liverpool recovering from wounds received at the front, made me quite emotional and I found myself blinking back tears and swearing at myself to keep it together at least until I was in a less public place. Hertman really touchingly shows all the brutal inhumanity of the world (a description of a gelatine factory will make your eyes water) alongside the wondrous and the beautiful: Urbain’s paintings, his mother, his short love affair, the Liverpool church, the beautiful landscape surrounding the battlefields, the sight of animals escaping the warefare… It’s a sad novel really but the contrasts give it a kind of hopefulness.

Hertman’s skill as a poet is evident here in the touchingly lyrical language. It’s so finely crafted it feels almost like a delicate work of art in itself. I really enjoyed this.

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For Two Thousand Years (1934) by Mihail Sebastian

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“Exactly the same thing happens with that age-old call for death which is always present somewhere on Romanian streets but audible only at certain moments. Year after year it resounds in the ear of the common man, who is indifferent, in a hurry, with other things on his mind. Year after year it rumbles and echoes in street and byway and nobody hears it. And one day, out of nowhere, behold how it suddenly pierces the wall of deafness around it and issues from every crack and from under every stone.”

My last stopover on the Around the World in 80 Books tour was in the West Indies for Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea. For my latest trip I’ve made a completely impractical (but metaphorical) leap over the ocean back to Europe to enjoy a brief stay in Romania – thankfully cost and carbon footprint aren’t a worry here or I might have planned the whole trip better and found a more efficient route 🙂

For Two Thousand Years has only recently appeared in English and I didn’t know much about it before it caught my eye in Waterstones a few months ago. Sebastian’s semi-autobiographical novel takes the very loose form of a diary covering about ten years in the life of a young Jewish man who, when the novel opens in 1923, is an impressionable student at the university in Bucharest. I found the opening passages unsettling, mainly because these were, of course, times of great political and social upheaval and the narrator suffers a great deal at the hands of anti-Semitic mobs on his way to lectures each day. It provokes much argument amongst his friends about what the future holds for the Jews in Europe but the narrator is much more introspective; he wonders what being Jewish means to him personally and whether he will ever really be accepted on his own terms in a Romania which repeatedly rejects and threatens those like him.

The book becomes less brooding – but no less intense – as he moves away from the university and I found it interesting to observe the ways in which his views evolve as he embarks on new ventures and makes new friends. He’s much less self-conscious from here on and there’s less soul searching so I’m sorry to say that I enjoyed these chapters a little more. I hope it isn’t spoiling things too much if I say that the novel takes a quietly sinister turn in the final pages. I was in a noisy hairdresser’s salon at this point in my reading, with a head full of foils, and I wondered later whether the incongruous setting might have made these chapters more shocking than they really were. I’d be interested to know whether anyone else found them as gut-wrenchingly painful to read as I did, much more alarming even than the violence displayed by the racist mobs in previous chapters.

My engagement with this novel went in fits and starts. We didn’t get off to the best beginning but there were several long passages that I loved, I mean really loved. I was so taken with some of Sebastian’s language and imagery that I ended up underlining several long passages in pencil, more than I have with any other novel I’ve read recently. On the other hand there’s no escaping the fact that on some occasions I had a hard time staying focussed. At times I was desperate to finish this novel; at others I wanted to savour every word. My feelings switched from one extreme to the other almost continually until the final few chapters when they suddenly fell very much in the books favour. I didn’t always find this an easy read – for several reasons – but it was beautifully written and haunted me long after I finished.

The Plague (1947) by Albert Camus

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There have been as many plagues as wars in history ; yet plagues and wars take people equally by surprise… 

I picked this up in a charity shop after reading a great online article (that I now can’t find) about the life of Albert Camus and how his experiences in the French resistance helped shape this particular novel. It struck a chord with me at the time, partly because the resistance story was incredible but also because, and I’m aware this might sound a bit grim, I’m kind of fascinated by the history of the plague. It’s obviously not the death and the suffering that do it for me; rather, as an ex-history student, I find it quite interesting to consider how plague epidemics changed the world around them. I’ve read a couple of non-fiction books on the subject but never any fictionalised accounts until the article on Camus encouraged me to give this one a try. And I’m very pleased I did.

The genius of Camus here is that this isn’t really a book about plague. Well, actually it is, but rather than dwelling on all the gory details just for the sake of it he uses his tale of a fictional plague epidemic in his home town of Oran in Algeria to draw subtle comparisons with the experiences of those living under Fascist rule. For the citizens of Oran it begins quietly enough, with the death of a few rats, but it’s not long before the city is overwhelmed and the populace is in a state of panic. The unnamed narrator’s account of the epidemic describes Oran’s year in enforced quarantine in minute detail; he describes the mounting death count, the daily struggle to survive, the fear of being forgotten by the outside world, the dwindling power of hope and the eventual abandonment of all those things that used to give life meaning.

Much of the novel is focused on Dr Rieux and the men who join him in trying to prevent the further spread of the disease. Their stories are told partly through diaries, letters and sermons, so they’re a welcome contrast to the hard, cold precision of the report style used elsewhere. In focusing on the efforts of these men in particular, and in switching the format every now and again, Camus ensures that occasional moments of friendship and kindness shine through every now and again. In fact, Camus often stresses how it is love alone that brings Oran’s inhabitants through these darkest days and keeps them fighting.

The Plague is a powerful novel and a genuinely moving one at that. The writing is simple but commanding; at times I felt so immersed in this novel it was like living in the quarantine zone myself. I shared in Rieux’s despair. I found it completely absorbing and quite disconcerting at times.

 

The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jannson

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During the first weeks of the new year I went on a bit of a book buying bender and I’m now feeling quite spent and ashamed of myself. Thankfully the situation is finally under control; I am firmly back on the wagon and have not bought any new books in a month, despite having been sorely tempted on several occasions. Go me.

The Summer Book was bought at Waterstones during one of the above sprees. It came down to an agonising toss-up between this and Elizabeth von Armin’s Enchanted April but in the end this was £1 cheaper so… It’s been a welcome addition to my reading year and I kind of love it, which is weird because not a great deal happens at all. This is a semi-fictionalised story set on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago where Grandmother and six year old Sophia spend their summers. Sophia’s widowed father is also there but he’s almost peripheral; while he works at his desk Sophia and her grandmother potter about the island, exploring, watching the long tailed ducks and quietly enjoying each other’s company.

A write up in The Guardian, written when this book was reissued a few years ago, describes The Summer Book as ‘a butterfly released into a room full of elephants’ and ‘a masterpiece of microcosm, a perfection of the small, quiet read’. I can’t really say it better than that. For me the joy of The Summer Book lies in the simplicity of its central relationship. This gruff old woman, with her aching limbs and her tendency to dwell too much on the past, obviously loves the company of her curious, wilful grandchild, although neither of them would ever admit as much. They’re very similar at heart but Jannson never sentimentalises their relationship, overstates how much they learn from each other or exaggerates Sophia’s childishness. Her humour and lightness of touch are absolutely perfect and make this a really easy, gentle and enjoyable read.

It was quiet again. Sophia stood waiting on the shore where the grass lay stretched on the ground like a light-coloured pelt. And now a new darkness came sweeping over the water – the great storm itself! She ran towards it and was embraced by the wind. She was cold and fiery at the same time and she shouted loudly, “It’s the wind! It’s the wind!” God had sent her a storm of her own. 

There’s not a thing I can say in criticism of this book which makes this an unusually brief review. Actually that’s not quite true – I can tell you that as a result of this book I ‘wasted’ a good hour on Google images admiring pictures of islands in the Gulf of Finland when I should have been logging onto online banking. The Gulf has now leapfrogged its way up my list of ideal future travel destinations and I am sincerely regretting my lack of funds with which to finance such a visit.

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante

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I surprised myself with how much I was looking forward to jumping back into Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. My Brilliant Friend, which I read back in April, is still one of my favourite books of the whole year and I’ve been desperately impatient to get my grubby little hands on the follow up. It took a while – mainly because of that whole changing jobs/libraries thing – but it finally appeared on the reserve shelf, with its little white label marked with my name, last week and I was over the moon about it. I did a silent dance right there and then in the library. I finished the book in a week (not bad at my current reading pace) and I’m already thirsty for book three so I’ll be back there later this week to add my name to another reservation list.

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done. 

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.

 

The Story of a New Name begins almost precisely where My Brilliant Friend left off: with Lila’s marriage and Elena’s growing acceptance that her best friend is finally escaping the poverty and the violence of the neighbourhood they’ve known since childhood. I’ll let you guess whether that actually happens. In this novel Lila has chance to adjust to her new life as Signora Caracci while Elena reluctantly continues her studies, pining for Nino and quietly envying her old friend’s glamorous new existence. This is a surprisingly long (and tumultuous) novel; a lot happens and all I can really say, without giving too much away, is that the friendship between the two becomes increasingly complicated and troubled.

The weird thing about this novel is that my feelings towards Lila evolved almost in time with Elena’s, which almost proves how utterly convincing Ferrante’s writing is. You can completely understand the fascination Lila holds for those around her and why they all seem to love her and hate her in equal measure. She’s at her most ferocious here; she lashes out at others to compensate for her own humiliation and sometimes she seems to do it with real relish. On the other hand you also get a real sense of how terribly afraid she is. You never doubt that she’d happily claw your eyes out to get what she wants, to prove everyone wrong and to salvage some sense of herself from her unhappy existence. Now that I think it over fully I wonder whether she might be one of the realest characters I’ve ever come across. Elena never manages to be quite so compelling but I think that’s probably the whole point. In her reluctance to dwell too much on the details of her own life away from the neighbourhood we get a very clear message that without Lila there’s not much worth dwelling on. Their relationship is frequently exasperating but it’s also engrossing and, at times, horribly distressing to witness. You wish that they weren’t quite so quick to push each other away when times get tough.

Ferrante’s writing, as I’ve now come to expect, is like nothing I’ve really read before. It’s brutal, intense, fierce even, and somehow quite urgent. It really emphasises the volatility of the relationships and the stark realities of life in this violent but rapidly changing neighbourhood. I find it emotionally exhausting at times but in a strangely positive sort of way, almost like I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know what will happen next. There aren’t many authors who have that ability to provide such a brilliantly nuanced insight into a relationship or who leave you quite so emotionally drained afterwards.

Bring on book 3 🙂

The Truce (1960) by Mario Benedetti

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A weird thing happened with this book. For the first two thirds at least I was fairly ambivalent about it: I liked the diary format, the intimate tone, the protagonist’s careful, measured approach to his affair with a colleague… but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. At times I think I felt a bit frustrated with the self-indulgent soul searching of the main character; he was selfish, I thought, and his concern for the delicate feelings of his new lover seemed to be a front, a way of protecting himself from pain and embarrassment. A selfish, unlikeable protagonist shouldn’t usually bother me but I found it especially hard to get on board when he kept saying things like this:

I’ve never trusted women with numbers… During their menstrual period and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if they are normally a little silly they become complete imbeciles.

And this on his gay son:

I would have preferred that he turn out to be a thief, a morphine addict, an imbecile. I would like to feel pity for him but I can’t.

And later:

When a person is rotten there is no education that will cure him or any amount of attention that will straighten him out.

I know it’s absolutely unfair to judge 1950’s anywhere by the moral standards of Britain in 2016. I get that. And usually I do a pretty good job of ignoring this sort of thing when it crops up, which it inevitably does when you regularly read books that were written fifty years ago. But still, this time, for some reason I can’t explain, I found it really jarring. Maybe it’s just me being a bit sensitive.

Anyway, as I said, my feelings for this novel at first were pretty lacklustre and I didn’t feel that this was going to be a particularly memorable read. That’s until Benedetti reached through the pages and punched me in the face with a plot turn that I probably should have seen coming. When I reread the blurb afterwards I realised, Oh yeah, of course that was always going to happen, it had to happen. It was at this point that I finally understood why he’d put us through all that moral wrangling, all that painful reminiscing and pondering on the future. It made sense. I knew now just how much Martin had staked on this relationship and why its sudden conclusion was so absolutely devastating. He’d been given a glimpse at a new happiness, a chance to feel really alive for the first time. But it had all been a dirty trick.

So, it’s a weird review this one. Can I say I liked it? I think so, but I’m not sure. Despite my initial reservations I closed the book feeling quite moved by it and wishing there was a happier ending for Martin Santomme. I was rooting for him in the end.

Top Ten Tuesday: Novels set in France

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week’s theme is along the lines of Top Ten Books with [XXX] Setting

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There’s a lot of scope with this topic, which probably accounts for the fact that for the first time in ages I’m actually sticking with the original TTT theme and not rewriting it to suit my own whims. I’ve chosen Top Ten Novels set in France because I’m reading one at the moment and there are several others on my mental TBR list.

Also, I love France.

1. A Very Long Engagement (1991) by Sebastien Japrisot. I’m so close to the end of this book and I’ll be sorry to finish it. I’ve enjoyed it hugely. Set in 1919, this is the story of Mathilde, her love for Manech and her quest to uncover the precise circumstances around his disappearance in the war.

2. The Count of Monte Cristo (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. This was hands down one of the best books I read last year. Edmund Dantes is falsely imprisoned, escapes and then plots his revenge on those responsible. Brilliant. Full review here.

3. Chocolat (1999) by Joanne Harris. I read a whole swathe of Joanne Harris books about fifteen years ago and this was by far the best (and the only one I now remember in any detail). Vianne sets up a chocolaterie in a small town in the middle of Lent and causes a stir amongst her new neighbours.

4. A Tale of Two Cities (1859) by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ only historical novel and one of my favourites. Dr Manette is released from the Bastille at the start of the novel but must return to revolutionary Paris years later when his daughter’s husband faces the guillotine. Full review here.

5. Suite Francaise (2004) by Irene Nemirovsky. Beautifully written but unfinished at the time of the author’s death in 1942 Suite Francaise was intended to be a sequence of novels about life in France immediately after the German invasion. 

6. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustav Flaubert. The scandalous tale of a doctor’s wife who seeks escape from her provincial life in the arms of other men. Flaubert perfectly captures all of Emma’s contradictions so you don’t know whether to hate her or sympathise.

7. Tender is the Night (1934) by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book is becoming something of a TTT regular. Tender is the Night is a powerful account of the disintegration of a marriage (based on Fitzgerald’s own experience) and told against the backdrop of the French Riviera.

8. The Three Musketeers (1844) by Alexandre Dumas. A ridiculously entertaining adventure story featuring D’Artagnan and his friends, this is much better than you might expect.

9. Charlotte Gray (1999) by Sebastien Faulks. Not one of my favourites but I loved the subject matter, if not the characterisation (or, in fact, the writing). I could write a whole book about how much I hate Charlotte – and why I don’t think Faulks does a good job of honouring the real female agents who parachuted into occupied France during the war – but there’s no denying the fact that I devoured this book whole in 24 hours. It can’t really have been that bad.

10. Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo. It’s long, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, but if you can get through all the filler there’s a lot of good stuff here about an orphan, a criminal, love and redemption. Just don’t go in expecting it to be like the film (it’s better).

On my TBR I also have: A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Victor Hugo), The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbary) and about a hundred others….

Can you recommend any? Suggestions always welcome!

The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher (1996) by Ahn Do-hyun

Last week I went to a library for the first time in three months. I’ve been meaning to join a new one ever since I changed jobs but it’s taken a while, partly, I think, because I’m still in denial about leaving my lovely old library behind (I know I just need to get over it and move on with my life). This new library is fairly close to my new office. It’s slightly smaller, definitely a bit shabbier, but it seems to be well stocked and the books are much more varied than at the old place. Now that I’ve got a card – and now I know I can definitely get there and back on my lunchbreak – I’m going to try to get back into the habit of going regularly. Maybe once every couple of weeks while the weather’s nice.

I came away with five books on Monday, this being one of them. I was actually looking for an Elena Ferrante book – the mythical Holy Grail of library books of course – but inevitably it was out and the waiting list was huge so I ended up browsing elsewhere. The Salmon Who Dared to Leap Higher caught my eye. It’s short, has a pretty cover, an intriguing name, and it’s by an author I’ve never heard of. It brings us to the next stop on my Around the World in 80 Books tour: South Korea.

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This is the story of Silver Salmon, so called because of his sparkling scales, who asks difficult questions that make him unpopular with the rest of the fish in his shoal. He wonders why it’s so important to make the perilous journey up river each year, why they must avoid the humans who lurk along the banks with their nets and whether this is all there is to the life of a salmon. It feels a little like a gentle bedtime story, told very simply and openly like a children’s book. Some of the language is quite beautiful but I have to say that I got a little distracted by the fact that the narration often seemed to change tenses in the middle of a sentence. I couldn’t decide whether this was deliberate, and if so what purpose it served, or if it was just one of those weird quirks of the translation.

On the whole I was really a little underwhelmed by this book but that just seems to be my standard response to any book that I think I’m supposed to engage with on a philosophical level. I very rarely come away from books like this feeling like I’ve learnt an important life lesson and in this case I think I’d have preferred a simple story about some fish. Maybe the profundity about seeing through the eyes of the heart or whatever was just laid on too thickly… or maybe I’m just a cynical, cold hearted person with no soul. I won’t say that I disliked it, because it’s actually quite nicely written, but I will say that it was just not my cup of tea.

I got four other books out at the same time as this so I’m hopeful that I might enjoy one of those a little more. In the meantime I’m slowly working my way up the waiting list for that Elena Ferrante book…. !

A Country Doctor’s Notebook (1963) by Mikhail Bulgakov 

(published elsewhere as A Young Doctor’s Notebook).

Do I express my thoughts lucidly?

I think I do.

What is my life?

An absurdity.

Now that Our Mutual Friend is well and truly behind me, I fancied moving on to something a little shorter, a little less taxing on the brain, for my next read. P read this book last year, not long after the TV show finished in fact, and has been raving about it ever since.  It seemed pretty ideal; not too lengthy, relatively light hearted (in places) and set in Russia. And we all know how I feel about novels set in Russia.

Back in 1916, Bulgakov was twenty-four years old and had just graduated with a medical degree from the University of Kiev. With frightening swiftness he was dispatched to his first practice, in an isolated spot in the heart of rural Russia, 35 miles from the nearest town and staffed with just two midwives and a feldsher. This book, written several years later, is a semi-fictionalised account of his two years in rural practice told in a series of short vignettes. In it, the inexperienced, overworked narrator must deal with emergency amputations, childbirth complications, syphilis epidemics and the wary distrust of the local peasant population. There’s no electricity, the roads are impassable except by cart, they’re frequently snowed in, and eventually there’s a revolution and a civil war raging in the background too.

“And there was I, all on my own, with a woman in agony on my hands and I was responsible for her. I had no idea, however, what I was supposed to do to help her because I had seen childbirth at close quarters only twice in my life in a hospital, and both occasions were completely normal. The fact that I was conducting an examination was of no value to me or to the woman; I understood absolutely nothing…”

The young Bulgakov seems to have viewed his time in the sticks as a necessary prison sentence, a step on the path towards finding a more respectable practice on his eventual return to the city. His stories are shocking and gruesome and horrifying to the modern reader but thankfully he never shies away from describing everything he sees in all its bloody gory. It makes for an engrossing and slightly unnerving read at times, particularly because he tells all his stories with a sort of dry, deadpan humour. This is especially noticeable when he recounts examples of his own panicked inexperience under all this responsibility. In one early scene he abandons a patient shortly before an operation so he can run back to his room and find a textbook with the necessary instructions for performing the procedure. In another he becomes completely enraged by the ignorance of a patient who refuses to accept that he’s suffering from a dangerous medical condition. These anecdotes are told so simply and matter-of-factly that as a reader you find yourself feeling quite glad that Bulgakov put himself through such hell since his experiences inspired such great tales.

The last two chapters of A Country Doctor’s Notebook shift away from Bulgakov and tell the stories of two other doctors of his acquaintance. The most gripping is the first of these – entitled ‘Morphine’ – and it’s the story of his successor at the hospital, a young man who sank into a crippling addiction shortly after taking up his first practice. It’s told in a series of diary extracts and, unlike other parts of this book, there’s not a lot of humour to be squeezed from his situation. However, it’s genuinely moving and provides an interesting shift away from the frantic chaos of the first half of the book.

All in all, I thought this was pretty perfect. It’s put me in half a mind to have another stab at Master and Margharita. Maybe in a few months’ time anyway. Probably not right now.

My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante

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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.