This book – the first in the Neapolitan series of novels – has been receiving a lot of positive press recently. I think I’ve come across it rather late in the day!
Set in Naples in the 1950s My Brilliant Friend tells the story of two young girls growing up in a poor neighbourhood of Naples. Elena the daughter of the porter, and Lina the daughter of the cobbler, are friends from an early age, and sometimes rivals. At school they compete for top marks, but usually Lina coasts through brilliantly, whilst for Elena it is often hard work.
We see the neighbourhood through the eyes of the children, and Ferrante slowly reveals to us the complex relationships in their “courtyard”. She begins to hint at the political history behind the friendships, alliances, debts and fears in this small community. There are intimations that this character was a fascist, the next in the Mafia, that another was profiteering from the black market.
My Brilliant Friend describes the childhood of Lina and Elena, beginning with their primary school years, and followed by the step into middle and secondary school. The girls are closest of friends but are torn apart by the different choices their families make for their future. Later they come together again and take the first steps into adulthood, pairing up with boyfriends, learning about the pecking order within their small community, finding out that their role as women makes their lives a little, perhaps a lot more constrained than they would like.
This is a book that contains murder, violence and sex, but these are all seen at a remove through the eyes of the two young girls, and in particular through the eyes of Elena Greco. So there’s a lot of drama. Characters from a child’s viewpoint can be mysterious, threatening, strange, and Ferrante lets us see these through the child’s eyes. The story is told with energy and the characters are very credible. The writer lets their actions speak for themselves: their vanities and cruelties, their weaknesses and self indulgence.
I can see why these books are so popular, and have already bought the second in the series. They are exciting as well as perceptive and comment on morality without being didactic or boring.
For me though the most striking part was that I could identify with their experiences as working class children growing up in the 1950s and finding that education opened the door to a different world, a different life. They were in Naples, I was in Manchester, but it was a time of great social change, and success at school made a huge difference. The fascination of knowledge, the desire to learn and understand, the self realisation that education allows- Ferrante evokes these well whilst intimating that there are drawbacks. She evokes the snobbery of some of the teachers, the way they look down on manual work, and judge those unable or unwilling to leave that behind. We see the self indulgent poet, hypocritical and self serving.
In the end, as a teenager, Elena stands at the threshold of a new life, and I’m really looking forward to finding out more about it in the next volume of the Neapolitan Novels.