Reading Life: The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

I have just finished reading The Story of the Lost Child the fourth and final Neapolitan novel by Elena Ferrante. I have been totally engrossed by all four books – a book box set – they have left a void, and I’m not sure how to fill it.

The novels are set in Naples and start off in the 1950’s.  They chart the lives of two friends, Lina and Lenù, growing up in “the neighbourhood.” a deprived and dangerous area of the city. It is a time where women are not educated, they are married young and start families.  A life of servitude to their husbands, in-laws and children is a given. Domestic violence is the norm.

It is a time of communist and fascist rebellion, the unveiling of political corruption and big social change. Italy steeped in tradition and the tradition of ‘the family’ finds these changes hard to accept, but impossible to ignore.

Both girls show signs of intelligence from an early age and one insightful primary school teacher intervenes. She tries to persuade their desperately poor families to allow the girls to further their education. One is allowed and one isn’t, and that is the linchpin that runs through all four books, the life of the educated girl and the life of her uneducated friend.

The books have been translated from Italian, and to add to the intrigue of the story itself, nobody knows who Elena Ferrante is. It could be a man that is responsible for these amazing pages, or it could be an autobiography? One or both of our protagonists could be the author? Only Ferrante’s publisher knows the identity of this talented scribe.

The story finishes in the early 2000’s, and the lives of Lina and Lenù, turn out completely differently to how I had expected when I started on this epic read. I am bereft that the story for me, is over. I will no longer check in with Lina and Lenù on a daily basis, they have been a part of my life since October and I shall miss them.  I didn’t warm to either of them particularly (I came close a few times) but I could relate to their friendship and to both their darker sides. I was deeply moved by some of the unsettling decisions they both chose and were forced to make.

When I finished the first book in the series My Brilliant Friend I wanted to lie on a beach on the island of Ischia in the scorching heat, eat pizza and kiss boys. By the end of the fourth book, I want to visit Naples, and in daylight hours walk down the Stradone and find the neighbourhood, avoiding eye contact with anyone. If I were to bump into Lina or Lenù I would give them both a big hug, a hug of sisterhood, and then I would walk away, very quickly and not look back.

NB: Book ‘box sets’ are all the rage and here are two more that I have on my wish list City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg and if you like a bit of ‘Scandi noir’ My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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