My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

It seems ironic that an author who is intent on remaining, not anonymous, but ‘absent‘ from her work has fuelled an intense wave of publicity on her very absence. But we live in a world where people thrive on the opportunity to reveal identities. We love it. We want to unite against bullying, raising money for a dancing man, generating a self-perpetuating hype that extends far beyond the original act. We crave the moment where a face is put to a name with the intensity of a criminal pursuit. As a book publicist, there’s always been something unsettling about my purpose. No journalist intends to write a piece on the content of a book alone, they reach out for interesting back stories: ‘has your author suffered an unusual trauma and been inspired to write as a result?’ ‘Does your author have a nice house we can photograph for our interiors page?’ It is unimaginably difficult for a book to be read on merit alone, so I find it admirable when an individual separates herself from her work, taking control over the desperate clawing for personal information and revealing only what is necessary. This person is Elena Ferrante.

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The point is, you do not need to know Ferrante’s entire history to appreciate that she is one of the finest novelists you will ever read. This woman (though some say man), has crafted the most intensely beautiful bildungsroman which has been split into four to form the Neapolitan Novels. I am drawing to the close of the third, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay having been unable to truly commit to another book since beginning the tale of two young girls in 1950s Naples, and the fourth will be published in English this September. The story starts in My Brilliant Friend and if you’re looking for something to read – make it this.

Set in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, My Brilliant Friend follows the story of Elena and Lila: two girls who, from a young age, are drawn together as they quickly learn to face the hardships of their poverty-stricken community through their fierce friendship. Though it stretches little further than the borders of their home, the narrative forms a detailed insight into the state of a country and its susceptibility to transform, much in the same way as these two inhabitants are forced to grow and learn quickly in their formative years. The result is astounding. Much like how I described Stoner, the writing moulds ordinary life into an extraordinarily riveting read.

It is both rich and raw in its stark honesty – I felt immersed in the girls’ lives. It is a hard feeling to describe. I have continually tried to portray how important their fates had become to me, personally, but it is difficult to find the right words. Ferrante’s writing is compelling. I felt like I was standing with Elena and Lila, an invisible spectator, living childhood over again. When Lila throws Elena’s doll, Tina, into Don Achille’s ‘lair’ (a character described in the index as ‘an ogre of fairytales’), I felt unreasoned fury. It was only on page 31, but I knew from that moment that I was invested in their story.

Once you reach this stage, and you will early on, it becomes necessary to have the book near you to pick up and continue reading at every opportunity. It is imperative to know the outcome of every facet of their lives: the shoemaking project; their efforts to go beyond their restricted education; the stirrings of young love and the reality of female obligation; everything. The minute detail that Ferrante injects into each corner of the community and into each nerve of her characters’ bodies makes the story almost forensic in its telling; intense and gripping.

I simply have not read anything like this before. It sounds so simple and restricted in nature but Ferrante, like her two protagonists, breaks every barrier with her impassioned, complex and honest narrative. It is a friendship that inspires jubilation and rage, but most of all, a yearning to continue and to follow the lives of Elena and Lila until the very end. I cannot recommend this book enough and, just take my word on this, buy all three at once because you will not want to reach the end of My Brilliant Friend without The Story of a New Name close at hand. I cannot wait for you to share in this experience.

– Franny

With thanks to Daniela from Europa Editions for sending a copy of My Brilliant Friend.

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