You have to love a novel that starts with the disappearance of one of its protagonists. When Elena discovers that Lila, her childhood friend, has not only disappeared, but also removed all physical traces of her existence, she gets angry. She resolves to write a novel in which she will record all she has found out about Lila over the past sixty years. Story-telling as a corrective, an act of vengeance.
Having thus framed the novel in the prologue, Ferrante takes the reader back to 1950s Naples, a gritty and at times violent urban environment, where being male is a distinct advantage, and being streetwise a necessity. Enter the unlikely protagonists: two six-year-old girls.
Lila Cerullo is one of those fictional characters who stay with you long after you have closed the magnetic flap over your iPad. She is intelligent but taciturn, determined, self-assured and brave. Elena Greco, the narrator, matches her intelligence, but it is Lila who is the natural leader, always taking the initiative.
Ferrante conjures up tension and suspense from mundane events: a test in class, a teacher falling against a desk, women quarrelling in the street, two girls skipping class. From the opening scene she displays her story-telling skills. The terror is palpable as the girls creep up the stairs to the apartment of Don Achille, a shadowy character who is disliked and feared in equal measure. Elena imagines him as ‘a huge man, covered with purple boils. (…) A being created out of (…) iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth.’
Education is of crucial importance in Ferrante’s world: it imparts benefits to cognitive and social development. It provides a gateway to self-determination. It offers an opportunity to escape fate and a destiny mired in family feuds or the internecine politics of postwar Italy – what the girls call ‘what came before.’ When Lila is made to work in her parents’ shoe shop while Elena is allowed to continue her studies, it seems as if Elena may outgrow her friend. But Lila doggedly, furtively, shadows Elena by studying Greek before trundling off to work, using textbooks borrowed from the local library. Her persistence goes beyond friends being competitive – this is educational stalking.
The novel tracks the ebb and flow of this special friendship until the girls are in their late teens. Lila’s persona, headstrong and contrarian, means that the novel never veers into sentimentality. This is a story about girls growing up and struggling for self-determination. They use their intelligence, initiative and native wit to counter the influence of family and community expectations and peer group pressure. The girls’ alliance is shaky at times, and not everyone comes out a winner… It is refreshing, though, to read a coming-of-age novel where learning is embraced by the protagonists and plays such a liberating role.
At times the grotesque threats as perceived by the girls reminded me of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. At other moments the novel reminded me of how Emile Zola used his Rougon-Macquart series as a sociological laboratory, a tool for tracing the impact of the environment on his characters. But these echoes are superficial, and Ferrante’s book is in no way derivative. She has found her own voice and conveys her message with confidence, wit and humour. I am not the first to say this is a great novel, and I won’t be the last.