Thursday, July 23, 2015

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

The first in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series of novels makes for addictive reading. 

My Brilliant Friend is the first in the series known as the Neapolitan novels by Italian author Elena Ferrante. Four novels in total comprise the series. Next to nothing is known about Ferrante herself, who writes under a pseudonym. When she first approached her literary agents, she stipulated that she didn’t want her identity revealed. She has said that "books, once they are written, have no need of their authors."

The story centres around two young girls, Lila and Elena, growing up in a poor neighbourhood of Naples in the 1950s. Lila is rather feisty and independent, but also brooding and mysterious. Elena, who narrates the novel, aspires to be a writer. She thinks herself somewhat dull and prosaic compared to the mercurial Lila. She also finds herself at odds with the local Neapolitan youths. They are variously violent, mad and uncouth. She yearns for something better, but also knows she is made of the same stuff as her contemporaries and can never really escape. It is this fact that gives the novel its ironic, contradictory and resigned tone. Elena wants to leave all of that behind her, but she knows she can’t. Her Neapolitan roots are an elementary part of her being. The same goes for Lila, who finds herself more and more deeply entwined within the local Neapolitan culture. 

I tend to think My Brilliant Friend is the kind of novel you’re either going to love or loathe. It’s irresolute, vacillating style is sure to drive some mad. It covers in minute detail a period of about five years, where not much happens besides tiresome fights, arguments, inter-family feuds and personal failures. For myself, I found it compulsive. What I loved about the novel was its style, a mix between Dostoyevsky and Emily Bronte. It has Dostoyevsky’s mad, contradictory dialogue and Emily Bronte’s dark and crazed characters. Once you get into the book’s style and you figure out its purpose, which is to evoke life’s perennially unresolved nature, then I think Ferrante’s prose becomes addictive. I’ll be intrigued to see if this mood holds when I start reading the second novel, The Story of a New Name.  

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. Published by Text. ISBN: 9781925240009 RRP: $22.99

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