My Brilliant Friend
The first in Ferrante’s series of novels set in and around Naples My Brilliant Friend concerns the early childhood and teenage years of the principal characters Elena and Lila.
The writing is deft, expertly rendering the claustrophobic poverty and vendetta stricken streets of 1950s southern Italy. The lens of an adult looking back to their own childhood with a critical eye brings sense to some of the mysteries of experience without loosing the freshness and distinctiveness of a child’s perspective.
In the opening sequence Elena and Lila climb a monstrous staircase there they must confront the imaginary doll thief Don Achille. The stairs may as well have been a mountain and the man a giant. Later, they go as young women up another staircase to deliver Lila’s wedding invitation to Madame Orvieto. She is unwell and befuddled, instead of speaking with respect o the two young ladies she has mentored since they began schooling she slams the door in their faces. This is quite the opposite go the reception of the man/monster who they found at the top of their childhood staircase. So it is with many of their experiences, just as satisfaction or understanding seems close, it is snatched away.
As experience separates the girls futures it is Elena who cements Lila’s wedding, her eloquent school learned diplomacy easing tensions between squabbling in-laws. Despite Elena’s fear and opposition to the relationship she seals Lila’s fate – but was there ever a chance either of them would find a different way to live?
Elena suffers under repeated self-delusions, tortured by always believing she loves more than she is loved in return. Lila remains enigmatic, determined and egoistic, and equally trapped.
The writing is lively and well-paced, and the depiction of poverty and the impossibility of escaping family bonds is well observed. Perhaps some of the vibrancy is lost through translation and the effect of repeated squabbles, lulls and transitions is to make the book feel a lengthy read. However, it is an immense undertaking and an evocative work, touching and at times excruciating. A meticulous examination of the fragility of friendship – love is a rose, but you’d better not pick it.
Orkney, October 2018
Books by Gabrielle Barnby:
The Oystercatcher Girl – a beautifully understated story of deception and forgiveness, love and redemption.
The House with the Lilac Shutters and other stories – utterly original story-making of a very high quality.