Saturday, 16 January 2016

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (translated by Olivia Goldstein)

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What We Thought:

On the surface, this is a coming-of-age novel set in the late 1950s in a poor, violent suburb of Naples. Yet it has depths of love, beauty, politics, social observation, spite, generosity and anger all rendered in sparkling prose.

The reader is immersed in this Southern Italian environment, narrated by Elena Greco, whose entire story of her growth and development into her late teens is refracted through the lens of comparison. Lila Cerullo is a wild, stubborn, intelligent, spiteful and completely hypnotic eight-year-old. Elena is drawn to this bright flame, despite her fears. The two support and compete, discuss and fantasise, gossip and observe their world as best friends. Small gestures of cruelty are followed by selfless acts of love, constantly testing one another and keeping score.

Ferrante’s cast of characters is broad and its hierarchy rigid. Brutal threats between neighbours, families, lovers are rarely idle and an undercurrent of honour, vengeance and blood runs just below the surface.

Passions and dramas abound on the small stage of their little community, set against a greater backdrop of the recent war, political extremism and the importance of having the right connections.

Ferrante is an extraordinary writer, able to observe the smallest details in grains of sand, then rush you through a scene such as the fireworks on New Year’s Eve so you feel exhilarated and unnerved. It’s a world you don’t want to leave. Thankfully, you don’t have to. This is the first in her series of Neapolitan novels. So that’s my Christmas sorted.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Accabadora by Michaela Murcia, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Avoid if you dislike: large casts of characters, domestic dramas, the male-dominated attitudes of the time

Ideal accompaniments: Pasta Puttanesca, a glass of Greco di Tufo and a sun-warmed balcony (or flickering fire).

Genre: Literary fiction, In Translation

Available on Amazon

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