Elena Ferrante's 'My Brilliant Friend' - elusive, yes, but also blindingly extraordinary

Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ – elusive, yes, but also blindingly extraordinary

If the past is, as they say, a foreign country, then childhood, for many of us, if not most, is a completely different universe.

We all have them in our lives, childhoods, and perhaps not a day goes by when we don’t look back over our shoulders to how we started for the sake of a clue about who we are now and what we might become. What happened in the beginning? What did people do to us? What did we do to others? What are the big events that still drive and shape us? And what are the small events that have an even more profound impact, somehow existing in every breath we take, even when we’re sleeping?

It is fiction that’s best at helping to answer these questions.

The novelist Elena Ferrante, who was born in Naples in 1943, is the author of three previous works: The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), and The Lost Daughter (2008). There is, however, significant mystery around her, as she has chosen to operate under a pseudonym and interviews are conducted via email with her publisher facilitating. There is even speculation that she is more than one person, except there is a distinct sense that this, too, is part of Ferrante’s plot to put a nail in the coffin of celebrity authorship, for she is adamant that the contemporary tendency to value the author over the work is wrong. This deliberate obfuscation, of course, threatens to do the opposite and eclipse the writing. Thankfully, Ferrante is a novelist of immense substance, authority, and insight and it is easy – and prudent – to ignore the gossip.

As suggested by the title, My Brilliant Friend is a novel about love and admiration between two friends. There’s Elena Greco, whose father is a porter at the city hall, and there’s Raffaella Cerullo, who Elena calls Lila – Lila’s father is a shoemaker. Elena and Lila become friends when they are very young, but the novel begins when the two are middle aged and Lila has disappeared, though not necessarily in the usual sense.

‘It’s been at least three decades since [Lila] told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide…She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear; nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know here well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she had found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in the world.’

You’d think that what follows would be a rudimentary ‘Whodunnit?’, but instead…

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which commissioned this review and published it on 3 May 2014.

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