“I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.” So said Virginia Woolf and this, the forging of identity in relationship, is very much the theme of Elena Ferrante’s compelling novel. Elena, the narrator of the novel, is in first grade when we first meet her. She lives in a violent and impoverished working class district of Naples where kindred spirits or role models are hard to find. Certainly not her mother – “My mother did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. I found her body repulsive.” Then she meets Lila. Lila is a wild child with exalted sensibility and intelligence for her age. In Lila Elena finally identifies an ideal she can aspire to. The portrait of Elena and Lila’s bond is the novel’s masterstroke. As all around them the somewhat coarse uneducated boys of the neighbourhood seek to distort and shape the girls to suit their own masculine vanity – “dissolve the margins” of separation - the two girls forge an independence of spirit that is nurtured by the inspiration they find in each other. They create a compelling and exciting inner world together, a stage on which they both are able to dramatise themselves as the heroines of their own fate. The novel is the story of their friendship and Elena’s attempts to transcend her background of thrift and mean spirited bullying.
It’s an unusual and highly distinctive novel (visually reminiscent of de Sica’s early brilliant films). Essentially because of the intensity and lucidity of Ferrante’s prose. She manages to write about the most prosaic detail with a kind of hallucinatory urgency and as such her voice hits exactly the right notes in expressing the joys and torments of adolescence when every day seems to hold moments of both pivotal humiliation and triumph, moments few adults are capable of perceiving. Thus the narrative is a constant high tension wire where the mundane relentlessly spills over into epiphany or violence.
There’s a passage when Elena is writing about Lila’s prose style which would serve as the perfect eulogy of Ferrante’s prose style – “She expressed herselfin sentences that were well constructed, and without error, even though she had stopped going to school, but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of the artifice of the written word. I read and I saw her, heard her. The voice set in the writing overwhelmed me, enthralled me even more than when we talked face to face; it was completely cleansed of the dross of speech, the confusion of the oral.”