This series of novels has only come to my attention relatively recently via all the excellent book blogs I read. I am drawn to any book about friendship and particularly the friendship between women which I believe can be a powerful and wonderful thing. When I was buying this I was looking for a book I could take on my hols and loose myself in, and this seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It didn’t take me long to realise this was going to be everything I wanted it to be.
My Brilliant Friend is book one of the four books which make up the Neapolitan novels written by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante and translated by New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein. The story is set in a poor neighbourhood of Naples in Italy and centres on the friendship of Lila and Elena. The prologue opens with the unexplained disappearance of 66 year old Lila where we learn she had always wanted to disappear.
“It’s been at least three decades since she told me she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace and I’m the only one who knows what she means……She wanted everyone of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well or at least I think I know her. I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world”
What we don’t learn is why she has disappeared. The opening chapter takes us back to Lila and Elena as children and from there it simply takes off, transporting the reader to a world of mean streets, poverty, deep loyalty and deep mistrust. This narrow world, the scruffy streets, the fights, and the families that make up this neighbourhood is Elena and Lila’s whole world.
“Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest. Children don’t know the meaning of yesterday, of the day before yesterday, or even of tomorrow, everything is this, now: the street is this, the doorway is this, the stairs are this, this is Mamma, this is Pappa, this is the day this is the night. I was small and really my doll knew more than I did”
As they grow up, despite Lila’s superior intelligence it is Elena who becomes the successful student. Lila is prevented from pursuing any kind of schooling and she withdraws into the family business and transforms into an aesthetically beautiful and almost unreachable character. The intensity of the friendship and the suffering it causes Elena is painful to read. For anyone who has ever bore the wounds of unrequited childish friendship, this writing will niggle and scratch.
“If I wan’t busy in the shop, I saw her talking now with this girl, now with that. I passed by, I greeted her but she was so absorbed that she didn’t hear me. I always caught phrases that seemed to me beautiful and they made me suffer”
This is a world of pain and suffering of family feuds, fierce loyalty, of brilliance and of foolishness. There is a cast of characters that at times felt difficult to keep up with but this is a world so intense that it inevitably and unavoidably pulls you in. Beneath the pain lies deep joy in the sheer intensity of this story, and I fear there is no return until the 2nd, 3rd and 4th installment of this fabulous series have been consumed.