The first two of Ferrante’s Neopolitan quartet. As with Tolstoy or Dickens these novels contain multitudes. The cast is immense and no one gets lost, whether it be a central character or the smallest walk-on part, they have a place in the tale and help to complete the whole sweeping panorama. It is the immensity of the undertaking and the detail contained within that that first strikes you.
There are of course ‘types’ here, and what we can assume as generalised versions of different people occupying different ‘stations’ in life: the almost illiterate cobbler; the would-be gangster; the almost middle-class and therefore, respected teacher; the academic, spoken of and treated with a mixture of awe and awkwardness. There is the machismo and the violence, but also an expectation of the violence – one mother berates her husband “what kind of man are you?” because he hasn’t beaten their ‘errant’ daughter as much as she feels he should.
The story, as told by Elena / Lenu Greco centres on her relationship with Lila: the strong-willed, truculent, vengeful, intensely loving beating heart of the stories. Lila is one of the great characters of 20th C literature. Everything of note that happens in these first two instalments of the series happens through or because of her. It starts with them at the age of 8 or so, going to school together where their friendship is forged through their being near the top of the class: they encourage and challenge each other. Then, without spoiling plot lines, because the joy here is in the telling, the books go through the years of the girls into adulthood…all the things that happen along the way: boyfriends; fall outs; arguments with parents; puberty; school; work. There are some fabulous early scenes where young Lila will not accept her ‘place’ as a girl and therefore lesser to the boys in school: if they are going to beat her, they are going to have to win because they are better than her. She quickly gets the measure of the boys and their assumptions.
It is easy to see why they have been such an international hit, because the telling is natural, almost conversational, that it doesn’t feel like a struggle, you just keep turning the pages and get immersed in the lives of the two main characters and the changing neighbourhood around them. It is hard to summarise these books because of the vastness of what they cover and the detail gone into in doing so. In a sense you are left as a passive, but fascinated observer to it all. It is undeniably a book with girls / women at the fore: the world is seen through that lens and is wonderful because of that. But also, because of that I cannot comment on its truthfulness – if that matters, at all – and clearly I am also no expert on growing up in the rough end of Naples in the late 1950s, with all the cultural knowledge that I lack, although the arrival of rock and roll appears to create as much of a whirlwind here as it did everywhere else in the west.
Elana Ferrante, whoever she might be, has created a marvel in these novels and I will, after a short break, return to read books 3 and 4 in the series, eagerly.