Do you ever get the feeling that you are reading the right book at the wrong time?
Or maybe it's the right book at the right time, just in the wrong format...
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante comes recommended by a legion of Esteemed Readers. Everyone is talking about the four Neapolitan novels, lauding them to the heavens and beyond, identifying with the narrator or maybe realising that perhaps they were actually the 'friend.'
"A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense, and generous-hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. The story begins in the 1950s, in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. Growing up on these tough streets the two girls learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else. As they grow, as their paths repeatedly diverge and converge, Elena and Lila remain best friends whose respective destinies are reflected and refracted in the other. They are likewise the embodiments of a nation undergoing momentous change. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighbourhood, a city, and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her protagonists, the unforgettable Elena and Lila."
But books like this sometimes have the potential to be the emperor's new clothes, and things weren't auguring well when I got off to a terrible start with the audio book. Now hats off to anyone who can narrate an entire book, it must be an absolute killer of a task, but it was offered at 99p when I bought the 99p (then) Kindle version so I thought why not. Sadly the narrator was far too laid back and soporific for me, but I wasn't in the mood to surrender, clearly this a book that has to be read by me to myself, not to me by someone else.
I was about half-way through the Kindle version of this first of four novels in the series when it hit me all of a sudden that I actually need to read this in the real book. I am happy with most books on Kindle now, I almost prefer it, but not for My Brilliant Friend and, though undecided about the cover, I have had to buy a copy, and it had better be good because there was a special offer and I have invested ahead...
Elena's first person narrative recounts the almost claustrophobic melting pot of first childhood and then adolescent emotions, and her friendship with Lila, and somehow the Kindle intensifies the intensity. I realise that there are moments when my eye needs to wander off the edge of the page and into space, when I need to sit and rhythmically flick the pages as I ponder, or to look back to the character pages to sort out the Cerullos and the Grecos from the Carraccis, the Pelusos, the Cappuccios, the Sarratores, Scannos, Solaras, Spagnuolos...it's all a pit of confusion waiting for the first tumble. This isn't a book to read just to get to the other end, there's a lot to be dealt with along the way, that much I now realise.
And there is a lot to think about because very slowly, whilst I can't quite identify with a childhood in 1950s Naples, and the aftermath of the war in Italy, there is plenty that is congruous with any childhood and adolescence.
It's all made me think about childhood friends, how we found each other in the first place, and how we then related to each other, and who held the power and why. We lived a bus ride away from primary school so my brother and I made friends by going out to play and finding others doing likewise....seems hard to imagine nowadays doesn't it.
There was always the manipulative friend who remained superior no matter what, the one who exerted the invisible control, the ones who went to private school and had homework had an edge now I look back, and actually what sort of friend was I. You could never reign supreme if you didn't have a pair of Jacko roller skates with ball-bearings in the wheels and mine were bog-standard. And as for those adolescent years well I certainly had a friend, and maybe you did too...the one you didn't let your boyfriend set eyes on because he might no longer have eyes for you. Sad but true are the things we worried about in our youth.
Cleverly the reader knows little more than Elena at any one time, with horizons restricted to the immediate, and emotions and self-awareness slowly expanding as the years pass. There are secrets and threats, a history as yet unspoken of the mafia, and transmitted to the children without explanation, but with the fears of their parents to be absorbed and replicated.
Reflecting on my own childhood in a post-war nation that had 'won' the war I now realise that unwittingly we thought we were the kingpins here in the UK. Playing 'wars' was standard fare even for girls on the streets and playgrounds of Britain, and none of us wanted to be the Germans or the Italians so I feel sure there is the legacy of World War II milling around in My Brilliant Friend too. And of course I now don't have my primary source to ask, but I do know we have pictures of my dad on board HMS King George V as it prepared for action stations off the coast of Italy prior to the invasion in 1943, and thankfully he wrote it all up in Bugle Boy..
'June 1943 at the invasion of Sicily...we were about to bombard the port of Trapani where a Herman Goering Panzer division was stationed to make them think there was a landing imminent to keep them away from the beachead, we also bombarded the islands of Favignana and Marsal on the way through...'
I can read about it anywhere but it was always good to get a first hand point-of-view. I'd nip next door into Tinker's Cott, do my 'cooooeee' call through the door and ask exactly how the war and Fascist rule left the Italian people...humiliated and defeated, or defiant and bullish. My dad was well-used to me doing this; he would have had an opinion and it would have been fascinating.
Funny how loss creeps in when you least expect it isn't it.
Anyway the upshot is that I have eventually warmed to My Brilliant Friend, especially as the Esteemed Readers tell me there are riches in store in the next three books, and the woman on the checkout at Waterstones intoned with some reverence that anyone who is anyone in the literary world is reading these at the moment. So I think I am reading the right book at the right time and now in the right format, but meanwhile I would love to know whether any of you have read it yet...
Have you been following the hype..
Or are you waiting until the rolling boil simmers down a bit (sorry, too much jam-making)
And what about childhood friends...
How did we find them and keep them...and how and why did we lose them.
Have you kept in touch with yours...
I'd love to find Ann Bowman my childhood friend now...we seemed like equals back then, even if she did go to private school and have Jacko roller skates.