I am crazy about this Neopolitan tetralogy by Italian writer Elena Ferrante.
The novels chronicle the friendship between two girls growing up in Naples in the 1950s and through the 60s (I just finished the 2nd novel which ends in the late 60s). They are fascinating books and they detail a world that has vanished: a violent, rough and tumble neighborhood of working class kids in poverty who rarely, if ever, have the chance to get out and improve their lives.
Lina, the best friend, is from a desperately poor background and her best friend, Elena (the novels' protagonist), is no better. They are connected through their intelligence (it's never clear who "My Brilliant Friend" is supposed to refer to exactly: at times Lina seems the more brilliant one, though Elena is the one who manages to "get out" of the neighborhood through her intelligence and hard work) but their relationship is complex and contradictory, full of betrayals and resentments.
Anyone who's ever had a lifelong friend will relate to these books: the complex ways we love someone, the ways in which we compete, even if we don't want to.
I kept thinking of my first few years in Montreal: I was working at a community centre in Verdun and so many kids (people) who were born there never leave: they get pregnant at 16 or 17, get married, move a few doors down from their families and just stay. Once when some kids asked me where I lived and I said near McGill, they almost acted amazed that I lived "so far away," and only one had ever been there (once). I hardly ever go to Verdun nowadays and I wonder if things have changed much...
Of course, Verdun isn't nearly as violent as Naples of the 1950s but it reflects a similar kind of mentality: never put on airs, never try and forget where you come from. How place (poverty, dialect) is both a mark of identity and a limitation. How place is as much a badge as gender or race (maybe more so). It's something that North Americans, perhaps, don't quite understand in the same way as Italians which is so regional. In Verdun I witnessed a small aspect of it though perhaps it is something Canadians can grasp in a more limited way.
Another thing which struck me was the simple fact that violence is impossible to get away from: all the kids are beaten by their parents and then they get married and their husbands beat their wives and the wives beat their children. It's just the way life is. But that's not to say that the books are depressing or self-pitying, not at all. They are funny, moving, intelligent and the kind of book where you have to stop now and then and just reflect on what the author's doing or trying to communicate.
I raced through the first two novels and wanted moremoremore. The 3rd novel in the series (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) is out today but I am battling with myself: I want to read it but I also want something to look forward to reading over the Christmas break. So we'll see how long I can hold out.
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