Book review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in Elena Ferrante’s widely lauded Neapolitan Novels series. Set in a poor but industrious neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, it tells the story of Elena and Lila, and the complex but intimate friendship that develops between them as they struggle to forge their own identities.

Lila is one of the most magnetic literary characters of the last few years. The reader becomes as obsessed by her as Elena is and you find yourself thinking about her long after you have turned the last page.

Filled with the vibrant colours, sounds and smells of working class Italy in the 1950s and 60s, My Brilliant Friend has drawn comparisons to the films of de Sica and Visconti. The story begins with Elena and Lila as young girls living in a poor but vibrant neighbourhood that is burgeoning with familial violence and seedy criminal underworld dealings; it is a place with little hope for two young women hoping to break out of the rigorous roles defined for them at birth. The two girls develop a fiercely competitive yet loyal friendship and soon learn to rely on each other ahead of anyone or anything else, often to their own detriment.

Elena Ferrante is one of Italy’s, and now the world’s, most acclaimed authors, as well as the most reclusive—her true identity is not known. The mystery of her identity though will soon fall by the wayside as you become immersed in the frank inner worlds of these two complex Neapolitan girls. This book is one of the most nuanced portraits of female friendship that exists in literature today. Ferrante very skillfully balances her emotional authenticity with a canny understanding of a society on the verge of dramatic political change. The pull of rising socialist movements, expanding education opportunities and challenges to social hierarchies that spread throughout Europe post-war is written to tangible effect and creates a fascinating parallel to the expanding mind of a young woman. The two girls’ consciousness and understanding expands and grows along with Italy as a whole into the modern era.

Ferrante’s writing is unapologetic in its unsentimental depictions of womanhood.

All of Ferrante’s novels are intensely personal, but the friendship depicted in My Brilliant Friend is remarkable for its piercing honesty and rich in its detail of everyday life in a poor but proud neighbourhood. Reading Ferrante is a genuinely enthralling reading experience and one has the distinct sense that we are witnessing in real time an author destined for the canon alongside Jane Austen.

The translation by New Yorker editor Ann Goldstein is excellent. This portrait of two young women growing up on the outskirts of society is compulsively readable.

Text Publishing RRP  $22.99

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