My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

My Brillant Friend

I finally found some time to read the first of the much talked about Italian writer Elena Ferrante’s (her pseudonym) Neapolitan trilogy. And it was worth the wait.

The story begins with a prologue in which Lenu, a Nepalese woman in her mid-sixties learns that her friend Lila has disappeared.

So begins the story of five-year-old friends Lenu and Lila and their upbringing in a poor suburb in 1950s Naples, narrated in first person by Lenu.

‘I felt no nostalgia for our childhood: it was full of violence’, she writes. She narrates in great detail the childhood concerns of the little girl’s lives and their observations of the world around them. The violence she speaks of is sometimes overt, as witnessed in the way the girls’ parents treat them, but the far more potent form is the suppressed violence and feuds that flow below the surface of their simple lives. Family ties and connections are everything and certain families rule their enclaves with an iron fist. There’s a very subtle but threatening undercurrent that runs through the whole story but that Ferrante very cleverly keeps in check so that the reader is always wondering if and when an explosion of violence might occur.

The friendship between the two girls is intricately and beautifully detailed – they are both clever but it is only Lenu who will go on to fulfil her teachers’ ambitions. Lila is the more canny and knowing of the two, but chooses the family shoe-making business rather than the education she would surely excel at. The finely tuned balance between their deep friendship and deeper competitiveness is so cleverly portrayed and felt very realistic to me. Lenu goes through life knowing that although she is first in class, she will never be truly first because Lila, who will always outshine her, is not competing.

Ferrante’s writing is clear and accessible and often both funny and sad. And always there’s the poverty and the only way out of it is with brains and an education or by marrying the moneyed but dangerous local boys who control the neighbourhood. When Lila’s brother befriends the dangerous Solara brothers, Lila worries it is not a good thing.

‘What’s wrong with it,’ Lenu asks Lila. ‘They’re dangerous,’ Lila replies, to which Lenu says ‘Here everything is dangerous.’

The story ends with a wedding and the promise of how Lila and Lenu’s life may turn out, the one educating herself to leave behind the poverty and violence and the other apparently welded to it for life.

I just loved Ferrante’s writing, whoever she is. This is great story-telling told with lovely straightforward writing, insightful relationships and clever tension and I can’t wait to read more.