Review: Elena Ferrante – the Neapolitan Novels

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I: My Brilliant Friend
II: The Story of a New Name
III: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
IV: The Story of the Lost Child

The weekend before my flight to Naples, I languished in Waterstones for an entire afternoon trying to decide upon just those few items that might suitably compliment my holiday. Beyond the obligatory travel guide, I was not sure what I wanted: travel-writing, history, fiction… Some months before, I had read a review of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, yet as I scanned the first few paragraphs of My Brilliant Friend it felt a bit trashy and I put it back on the shelf. Then, at the airport seized by a sudden impulse, at the last possible moment, I dived into Smiths and bought a copy, since when I have not looked back.

In all it has taken me a little over a month to tear through all four volumes and my first impression, I will admit, was misconceived. Yet in the meantime, the author has erupted into the headlines once again, for having her anonymity exposed. To me, it does not much matter. The more urgent question is whether or not the novels are any good – and I cannot quite make up my mind.

The typical adjective for the prose of the novels is ‘muscular’. Indeed, like the city, it makes no apologies for itself: vedi napoli e poi muori, engage with it or go away and do not come back…

It is sometimes described as the complete evocation of a friendship between two women from childhood to old age. Yet this does not seem quite accurate. To me, the dominant theme was the manner in which women’s lives proceed. To what degree they are defined, controlled and distorted by men, and indeed how those men themselves are products of society and their environment. The women are far from heroic – their motives are as deep and muscular as the prose itself. Italy passes from the post fascist era, through the ‘years of lead’ and into the subsequent decades, yet the focus remains human rather than social. Politics and society are little more than a backdrop, the wood we do not see for the trees.

Ferrante demonstrates a mastery for engaging the reader and giving the prose a momentum. Yet at the end of all the sound and fury, I wondered if it had signified nothing. Perhaps, ultimately that was the point.

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