You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘literary reviews’ tag.

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.

Some novels do amazing things.  This is one of those novels. Do seek it out.

Some novels do amazing things. This is one of those novels.

Violence is never far beneath the surface, it’s always just over the horizon, it rarely leaves us alone.  Surely one of the best means we have of examining our innate capacity for violence, to survey its insidious possibilities, is the novel.  And surely one of the most astute English-language novelists whose primary focus is violence, particularly the lingering impacts of civil war, is Aminatta Forna.

Born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, Forna’s previous novel was The Memory of Love, an awful though not inappropriate title for an astonishing work.  This was a complex and multi-dimensional examination of the consequences of war in Sierra Leone, a country with which Forna clearly has a profound affinity.  The novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2011 and won that year’s Commonwealth Writers Prize.  The Hired Man, despite again delving into war, is a lighter, simpler work, and, due to a miracle of literary achievement, is an even more potent piece of story-telling.

Set in Croatia, and spanning the shaky decades leading up to 2007, The Hired Man has as its central protagonist a forty-six-year-old man called Duro Kolak.  Duro lives alone, enjoys the company of his two dogs, and gets by doing odd jobs around his small hometown of Gost.  A sometimes reticent soul, he is an adept observer of human relationships, but his real passion is hunting.  Indeed, it is telling that on the first page of the novel there is Duro seeing a new arrival in town:

I trailed the bird lazily through my rifle sights and that was when I noticed the car.  A large, newish four-wheel drive, being driven very slowly down an entirely empty road as though the driver was searching for a concealed entrance.  I lowered the gun so that I had the vehicle fully in my sights but the angle and reflection of the sun made it impossible to see who was driving.

The woman who is driving is Laura…

*

Keep reading over at the Sydney Morning Herald.  Originally commissioned by the Canberra Times and published on 3 August 2013; thanks to Rod Quinn.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 175 other followers