“This morning Rino telephoned. I thought he wanted money again and I was ready to say no.”
WE start with a mystery, a disappearance. And also a set of family trees, in case you might need to flip back quickly to check your Scannos from your Sarratores who form an enormous backdrop. We swiftly pick up with the central friends Lena and Lila, with their dolls, Nu and Tina. Although we start in childhood, in first grade, Lena’s voice is the autobiographer who will slowly bring in all this cast of Naples in the ’50s and will quickly explain the brilliance of her new pal.
“We lived in a world in which children and adults were often wounded, blood flowed from the wounds, they festered and sometimes people died”. Lena then gives a few choice examples.
There is a sense of the Italian in the very words and phrases, elegantly translated by Ann Goldstein (who just happens also to be head of copy at the New Yorker), which convey a warm, expansive affection, of the telling of a story in the grand manner, suitable and fitting tributes to all who appear, good and bad, frightening (Elena’s mother), more frightening (the ogre next door) or a rival school beauty Gigliola, daughter of the pastry maker.
Central to all this is Raffaella Cerullo, called Lina but Lila to her friend, a girl of determination. “…she was skinny, dirty and always had a cut or bruise of some sort…with us she spoke a scathing dialect, full of swear words…”
The spinning of the narrative is quite masterful. Innocuous details assume an unexpected import. There are no crutches, no conceits, or for that matter sentiment but a driving imperative to get on with the important things, the story, the Italianness, the 1950s and as the girls agree, to make some money and get the hell out of their claustrophobic tenement.
As the first of the quartet of Neapolitan novels you might be tempted to fear some hybrid Inspector Montalbano meets the Forsythes, but not at all, it is as original as Don Corleone’s smirk and has its own brio and bustle.
“I hoped to detach myself from that sum of misdeeds and compliances and cowardly acts of the people we knew, whom we loved, whom we carried…”
I especially like this description, for example:
“Rino got angry. Not only that: right before my eyes, he went through a kind of transformation. he became red in the face, he swelled up around the eyes and cheekbones, he couldn’t contain himself and exploded in a series of curses and expletives…”
Transformations are really at the heart of things here, from girlhood, from the legacy of war, from school friends…
Ferrante keeps her own identity as a writer a secret, although her family secrets are surely here. And she is a natural storyteller. Each chapterette opens with a train of thought which then moves usually into a supportive, forward looking episode. And then on Thursday…
She has the sense of a tabloid reporter unearthing the most headline catching nuggets while carefully holding back from interfering. She lets her characters’ dialogue set up the drama. Although effusively, even lavishly Italian in rhythm and rolling lilt, you would not say there is a word out of place.
And we are drawn into the friendship of the two girls, as if a part of their own clique…her friend is not the only brilliant one here.