The first of her Neopolitan novels, Elena Ferrante has written the story of two poor urban girls growing up into the general tragedy of their city. A place where high school is unheard of, domestic violence is the norm, brothers fight to protect misaligned family pride, and small business on the main street is the recipe for success, wealth and, therefore, happiness. They are tremendously intelligent girls in post-World War II Naples, one of whom escapes for college, while the other marries.
This is not a sentimental re-writing of history, of what it was like to grow up in Naples in the 1950s. It’s almost a relentlessly un-emotional retelling of friendship, poverty, development. Ferrante is so in the moment, there is barely space for reflection, as a bare and honest story and this unsentimentality is what makes it so affecting. Without realising, the girls are caught up in the politics of the time, distilled down into their parents’ poor-paying jobs, the closed-in community of their suburb, the lack of choice, poverty as a kind of predestination.
Elena and Lila are growing up on the outskirts of Naples, poor but vibrant tough streets. Their friendship becomes a kind of not-always-perfect protection against hardship, telling the story of the suburb an the country undergoing momentous change. Plotted chronologically, told through moments of the developing friendship between the developing girls, My Brilliant Friend is an examination of power in the microcosm and intense prism of childhood’s female friendships.
Adults, waiting for tomorrow, move in a present behind which is yesterday or the day before yesterday or at most last week: they don’t want to think about the rest.
Ferrant captures the immediacy of childhood’s perception, retelling in a spare, honest way. This simple unselfconsciousness of narration make it immersive and almost visceral, the sparseness of their lives – enabled through the actual poverty of their parents’ economy – reflected in how Ferrant writes.
These girls are women who don’t quite fit into the roles available to them. And in their complex friendship, they struggle against each other as well as their parents, their community, the expectations of their society. There are raw moments when the politics of the country, so regularly easily dismissed when struggling for food on a day-to-day basis, that Lila grasps onto and is rocked:
…she, in her usual way, was moved and altered by them, so that for the entire summer she tormented me with a single concept that I found quite unbearable…there are no gestures, words or sighs that do not contain the sum of all the crimes that human beings have committed to and commit.
Such wisdom, captured through the naiveitivity of the girls, discovered by asking ‘why’ when their parents learned long ago that asking made the survival of their lives much harder. And watching their parents’ resentment of their youth, possibility, intelligence, is horrifying and yet completely understandable: feeling so quashed in their own ambitions, any path for their children beyond what they themselves got seems unthinkable.
In the end, this book took me by surprise. The moments of fear or pain or naive intelligence are subtle, quiet, and kind of stunning. I don’t think this is a story for everyone; Lila and Elena’s friendship is unassuming, frustrated, in a small and almost claustrophobic world. But I want to know what happens to them: Lila’s misty-edged disappearance, Elena’s abrupt intelligence combined with the crippling self-doubt of her age. We already know this is a lifelong friendship, and I need to know how.