The Neapolitan Novels by Italian writer Elena Ferrante, translated by Anne Goldstein, have been the sleeper hit of the summer. Passed around from girlfriend to girlfriend, sister to sister, mother to daughter, they arrive in your hands along with the call: ‘Read it. You will recognise it.’
Ferrante has written the defining novels of female friendship. Through the lives of the two protagonists Lenu and Lila, readers recognize something of their own experience of being a girl who is friends with another girl, a woman who is friends with another woman.
With such a dearth elsewhere, a series of books that understand the complexities of female friendship would have been exciting enough. But the scope of Ferrante’s novels is much bigger and broader than that – exploring themes of male violence, female sexuality, family discord, class, poverty, education, and the ideological battles between communism and fascism that exploded into bloody scenes in late 1960s/early 1970s Italy.
The novels follow the lives of Lila and Lenu, two girls growing up in an impoverished and violent neighbourhood in Naples. Lenu is pretty, clever, and lives in poor circumstances with her crippled mother, siblings and father who works as a porter. Lila is beautiful, fiercely intelligent, and lives in poor circumstances with her shoemaker father, her mother and her brother. When the girls finish primary school, Lenu continues her education. Lila’s parents however, can’t pay for their daughter’s schooling and so she must go to work.
The poverty that prevents Lila’s education goes on to define the girls’ futures. Lenu has an opportunity to escape her home life through learning. Meanwhile, Lila is stuck in a cycle of poverty, stuck in the family, stuck in the neighbourhood. Her only chance of escape is to get married, but – as she soon discovers – marriage is just another trap for women.
Violence runs through the novels like an ugly vein. From the very beginning, the silent spectre of the recent fascist regime hangs over the neighbourhood. The novels are packed with fights, street battles and murders that provide a chilling backdrop to the male violence against women and girls that returns throughout Lila’s and Lenu’s lives.
Ferrante expertly deals with the male violence experienced by both her protagonists. Horrifying without being graphic, she writes enough for us to be disturbed without falling into the trap of so many writers (and film directors) of gratuitously detailing every terrifying and bloody moment.
Naples, the city at the heart of Ferrante's novels. Photo: Alexandra Svatikova via Flickr.Throughout the novels, she explores how the class inequality in the neighbourhood fosters a culture of aggression, and how male violence is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality. In almost every relationship between men and women in the novels there is a violent tension that simmers and threatens to boil over – and frequently does.
One of the more fascinating aspects is how the women find coping strategies to deal with the abuse they endure. In one stunning episode, Lenu reframes herself as the subject rather than the object of a sexually abusive ‘relationship’. In defiance of reality, she creates a narrative that gives her all the power and control in the situation – something she only later comes to recognise as an older woman.
This subtle and incisive understanding of the female psyche makes Ferrante’s writing so refreshingly unique in its depiction of women’s relationships with men, and their relationships with each other. Ferrante understands the complexities; she’s not afraid of exploring and pushing them. It’s in her exploration of the complexities of female friendship, however, where Ferrante really shines.
As Lenu and Lila grow up, the love and rivalry between them grows too. They are one another’s shadow – sharing a loving but jealous relationship, and in their jealousy develops a desire to always be doing something that will impress the other. They know they can lean on their friend but also resent that dependency. There are moments Lenu wishes Lila would die, but she’ll fight tooth and nail for her friend’s survival. When you read Lenu and Lila, you see echoes of your own adolescent friendships; you recognise the confused mix of hatred and love; anger and joy; envy and pride.
No other writer, as far as I can see, has ever truly exploited this rich and difficult subject to such a degree as Ferrante. And no other writer has come as deliciously close to fully understanding and bringing to life what for young girls is the formative relationship of our lives.
That’s why, I believe, the novels’ success has evolved in the way it has – as books that are passed between women with a nod and a smile that says ‘you’ll understand what is written here’. Ferrante has pulled off an incredible trick in writing a series of novels that are specific to a time and place, and yet which explore a universal experience and emotion every woman can relate to. The relationships Ferrante writes are eternal – they are me and my friends; they will be my niece too.
There’s so much more to say about the Neapolitan Novels; about Ferrante’s understanding of female sexuality, about class politics, about the skill of writing a novel that has such a huge scope and backdrop yet reads as an intimate exploration of two women’s lives.
Her subtle and sensuous depiction of Lenu’s and Lila’s world leads to a totally immersive reading experience – you feel the street dust on your face, the sand between your toes, you can smell the stench of sausage meat. You’re living in the neighbourhood as you read. It’s with a mixture of relief and regret then, that like Lenu, you’re able to leave it when you close the book.