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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…

*

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

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Kathleen Kent's 'The Outcasts': taking the past into the present and beyond?

Kathleen Kent’s ‘The Outcasts’: taking the past into the present and beyond?

What should a reader take away from historical fiction, from a novelist dwelling in the past and mining what has already happened to bring us a story?

Surely it should not be just that, a story, but a work of substance and weight and depth that says something exhilarating about how we got to where we are now and in what directions we might like to go next. With the benefit of hindsight and from having access to a great trove of material, a historical novelist has the chance to turn things over and reveal fresh threads and meanings. The novelist’s task in this regard is to tantalise, not to offer up another record.

Enter Texan Kathleen Kent, a New York Times best-selling writer of historical fiction who in her third novel since 2008, The Outcasts, focuses on a loose group of folk struggling to survive the 1870s, that precarious period immediately following the American Civil War. Here was a country – two countries? – torn apart at the seams, deeply divided over race and identity.

The Outcasts is a quest for revenge and redemption. But only of sorts. It is constructed around chapters that alternate between two characters, and within the opening scenes it becomes obvious we are on a collision course – it is just a matter of who is going to live to see another day.

There is Lucinda, an intelligent, somewhat devious but determined prostitute who is fond of getting dosed up to the eyeballs on laudanum because she suffers from fits and ‘the palsy’, though it might also relieve her from the spot of bother she is in – someone she may or may not be using, and who may or may not be using her. About Lucinda we are told that ‘even the dullards sized her up with telegraphic precision’. During a moment in a carriage, she watches a passenger move discourteously away’ and decides that ‘he must have been a Methodist as a Baptist would have spent the greatest part of the trip staring at her bosom’.

Then we have Nate, a newly sworn-in Texas state policeman originally from Oklahoma. Principled and thoughtful, he is also a fine horseman and is dedicated to his wife and child, to whom he writes whenever he has the chance. And we have McGill, a ‘goddamn kidkiller’. And finally we have some buried treasure, which might be the objective of the exercise.

Page after page we travel across the countryside. Horses are ridden, people are shot, and we are told about ‘gaters’ and hard-luck towns and harsh but beautiful landscapes…

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which commissioned this review and published it on 11 January 2014

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