November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.
But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.
When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.
What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood.
Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.
NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine
This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.
DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox
Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.
THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)
Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.
THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer
A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.
As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.
Last year, I read the four Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante and I was blown away. Not surprisingly, the books found a place on my Best of 2019 list, and I was keen to explore some of her standalone works.
The Days of Abandonment was the one that was calling out to me and I also felt it was a perfect fit for “Novellas in November” (#NovNov)
The Days of Abandonment is a vivid, visceral tale of a woman’s descent into despair after she is abandoned by her husband.
From the very first page, Olga (our narrator) is devastated when Mario, her husband, communicates his intention to leave her.
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me.
At the time, Mario does not give any explicit reason, other than the fact that it’s all too much for him and he wants to leave. While Olga is shocked, she also feels certain that this is only a phase – Mario had expressed this very intention many years ago, only to come back to her again.
Olga, meanwhile, must grapple with the day to day life of taking care of her two children – Gianni and Illaria – and their dog Otto, while managing the house and paying the bills. They reside in Turin. At the same time, Olga refuses to accept Mario’s abandonment, and spends every waking moment trying to figure out what went wrong, and what needs to be done so that he comes back. But when she somehow learns that Mario has deserted her for another woman, Olga loses control.
Seething with anger and immense rage, Olga goes on the offensive – she speaks roughly with her friends and acquaintances, hurls abuses and resorts to foul language when interacting with others, and at one time even physically attacks Mario when she spots him with his new love Carla, in a shop.
Thereby begins Olga’s downward spiral into depression and gross neglect. Finding herself standing at the edge of a precipice and staring into an abyss, Olga struggles to adapt to the cruelly altered circumstances of her life.
At times when examining her situation, Olga is haunted by the image of the poverella (poor woman), a dominant presence in her childhood. The poverella in question was also abandoned by her husband and reduced to a state of utter despair, cutting a pathetic figure. Olga, at the time, vows never to slip into the same situation, but in her present sorry state, she can’t help but identify herself with that woman.
As the days go on, completing household chores, performing the duties of a mother, and tackling other practical problems of everyday life begin to take its toll on Olga as she overwhelmingly feels she is trudging through wet cement.
Don’t succumb, I goaded myself. Fight. I feared above all my growing incapacity to stick to a thought, to concentrate on a necessary action. The abrupt, uncontrollable twists frightened me. Mario, I wrote, to give myself courage, had not taken away the world, he had taken away only himself. And you are not a woman of thirty years ago. You are of today, take hold of today, don’t regress, don’t lose yourself, keep a tight grip.
She starts faltering, until one day things simply hit rock bottom. Has Olga reached a point of no return? Or, will she succeed in climbing out of this hole, and clawing her way back?
I was not the woman who breaks into pieces under the blows of abandonment and absence, who goes mad, who dies. Only a few fragments had splintered off, for the rest I was well. I was whole, whole I would remain. To those who hurt me, I react giving back in kind. I am the queen of spades, I am the wasp that stings, I am the dark serpent. I am the invulnerable animal who passes through fire and is not burned.
What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. She is immensely self-aware in a way that is fascinating and compelling. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood. As readers, we are forced to wrestle with our feelings, because while Olga’s neglect of her children in her dark days can be hard to fathom, we also can’t help but empathize with her.
The Days of Abandonment, then, is in many ways an apt title for this powerful novella. On one level, it refers to the obvious fact of Mario leaving Olga. But, on another level, it also conveys a sense that Olga is losing her identity, that her sense of self has merged with that of the poverella, and that there is not much to separate the two women.
The Days of Abandonment is a great entry point for those who have never read Ferrante’s books before and do not want to commit to her Neapolitan Quartet yet, although I do think the latter is much superior.
To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Well, certainly in 2019. But there was nothing quite as therapeutic and rewarding as reading for me this year.
On the surface, books can be the perfect portals to travel to another world. And yet, even where we are, good books can help us make sense of what is happening around us. They introduce us to a myriad of cultures, offer different perspectives on global issues and evoke empathy in a reader. Sometimes we read to glean new meanings and new ways of thinking. Sometimes we marvel at how authors can magically transform innermost feelings and emotions – that resonate with us – into words, which we could not have possibly done ourselves.
Personally, at the best of times, I sunk my teeth into some gorgeous pieces of writing, and savored fresh ideas to mull over. To top it all, I rediscovered some amazing women writers of the early 20th century, whose works, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, had passed me by. But there were some low periods too. And during these times, books were like a soothing balm for a bruised soul.
All in all, 2019 was another brilliant reading year. Most of the books I immersed myself into were fiction – a healthy mix of novels originally written in English (both classics and contemporary lit), translated literature and some short story collections. A couple of times, I did venture outside my comfort zone – poetry and essays – with excellent results.
Let us look at some stats for the best books I ultimately selected:
All the books are written by women.
Five of the titles (or 10 books) are translated works of literature from countries such as Italy, Denmark, Argentina, Colombia, and Japan.
One more thing. In the last 2-3 years, I largely restricted the list to not more than twelve books. This time I have decided to expand the list a bit. Also, some of the works by Elena Ferrante, Tove Ditlevsen and Olivia Manning are all part of a bigger story spread over 3-4 books, and so for the purposes of this post I have counted them as one (The Neapolitan Novels, The Copenhagen Trilogy and so on).
So without much ado, let’s move on to the books I selected and what made them special…
(The books are not ranked in any particular order. While I have provided a brief write-up on each, for more detailed reviews you can click on the links).
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!
It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs. Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.
One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.
Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies helped me navigate some challenging times this year.
The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.
In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all.
While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.
2019 marked my entry into the brilliant world of Muriel Spark. I began with the rather black and hilarious Memento Mori and followed it up with the excellent The Girls of Slender Means (which I have not reviewed).
Both the books could have easily found a spot on this list had there been space, but the Spark I am going to include is The Driver’s Seat.
This is a clever novel – weird and dark as heck – and the central protagonist Lise is an unforgettable, bizarre creation. The opening pages are memorable where Lise tries on a dress in a shop, but creates a ruckus when she is told the dress is stain resistant!
Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s masterpiece. The focal point is the St Charles family at a time when the world of aristocracy and country estates is fading. It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated.
At the centre of it all is Aroon, the narrator of this tale. And yet, paradoxically, in all of her relationships, Aroon is always at the fringes unable to grasp the full meaning of the events taking place around her. She is an awkward, tragic creation longing to belong.
This is a dark gem brimming with family secrets and hidden meanings and a great ending.
Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost was the only poetry collection I read this year, and what a fabulous collection it was!
The collection is divided into two sections. In Part One, Zeus, the god of gods in Greek mythology, is portrayed as a serial rapist and an abuser. He is unable to control his urges, and longs to exert his power over women and little girls. This section is stunning as Benson’s writing is furious and visceral and the poems surge along at a frenetic pace.
Part Two is more reflective and meditative but without losing any power. It deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.
Vertigo & Ghost won the prestigious 2019 Forward Prize for poetry, and has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. And very rightly so!
When it comes to the evocative portrayal of California and Los Angeles, there is no female writer to match either Eve Babitz or Joan Didion.
I didn’t read any Didion this year (her novel Play It as It Lays was one of my top reads in 2016), which I hope to correct come 2020.
I did venture for the first time into the work of Eve Babitz though. Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her standing as a strong writer.
Slow Days, Fast Company is absolutely delightful, simmering with hedonistic qualities. Babitz comes across as a spunky, witty and worldly woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it. The book is filled with immensely quotably lines and reminded me of another favourite short story writer of mine – Lucia Berlin.
In ‘The Juniper Tree’, Barbara Comyns cleverly provides her own feminist twist to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name as she examines what it means for a woman to be independent.
Bella Winter is scarred by an accident, ditched by her boyfriend and is the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite these challenges, she has the resolve to carry on and manages to eke out an independent life by working in an antiques shop, a job she comes to love.
Then she becomes friends with the wealthy couple Gertrude and Bernard, and for a while things coast along smoothly. But will this idyllic existence last? The Juniper Tree is a wicked jewel of a novel suffused with a delicious sense of dread and foreboding and a tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.
In The German Room, the central protagonist is a young woman who travels from Argentina to Germany to escape all her problems back home. But life in the town of Heidelberg has its own share of adventures and challenges.
Throughout the book, our protagonist is ambivalent about her situation and circumstances, preferring to go with the flow. It is this uncertainty that drives the narrative forward and makes the story quite suspenseful. One character particularly sticks in the mind – her friend Shanice’s mother, a woman quite tragic and haunting.
Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.
The first novella – ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ – is particularly the highlight where the narrator is dissatisfied with her current life and longs to escape and run away from her dead-end circumstances. The other novella – ‘Sexual Education’ is equally good. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.
There has been a lot of love for Elizabeth Taylor on Twitter to the point that I could ignore it no longer. It had inexplicably been a long while since I read A Game of Hide and Seek – a great one – and it was time to remedy that with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
Mrs Palfrey is an exquisite and bittersweet novel on ageing and loneliness sprinkled with doses of humour. Taylor’s writing is gorgeous and she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age. I must read more Taylor in 2020.
I am a big fan of Deborah Levy’s writing. I have pretty much loved everything I have read of hers so far and the second instalment in her ‘living autobiography’ – The Cost of Living – had been one of my best books in 2018.
I must say that her latest offering, The Man Who Saw Everything, also more than met my expectations. The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything, particularly the part about the band’s camera shoot for the cover of their album Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together.
In Part One, it is September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.
The Man Who Saw Everything is a wonderfully disorienting novel and if you are looking for an anchor while reading it, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. The novel is like a prism offering different perspectives and is peppered with recurring motifs and ideas. Plus, in Saul Adler, Levy has brought to life a complex character.
Conversations with Friends was one of those novels which I began reading with low expectations courtesy all the hype but ended up loving. It is a story of four people – the intellectual Frances and her outspoken friend Bobbi who strike up a friendship with Melissa, a reputed journalist, and her actor husband Nick. This is nothing like your run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. What stands out is Rooney’s ability to astutely convey the complexities of modern relationships. Plus, she has a flair for wit and her dialogues are spot on!
The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.
Summing Up and Some Honourable Mentions…
That rounds up my best books in 2019. I could easily have included a couple of more titles, so let me give a special shout out to Loop by Brenda Lozano and Disoriental by Négar Djavadi.
Happy reading and best wishes for the festive season!
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels gained immense popularity and critical acclaim when they were published between the years 2012 and 2015. Strangely, at the time, the hype surrounding the books put me off reading them.
Only recently, I discovered that the first novel has been adapted for television. Keen at some point to watch it, it provided the impetus I needed to read the books first.
As I greedily began turning the pages of the first novel My Brilliant Friend, I immediately ensured that the other books in the series were on hand. Also, I abandoned the idea of spacing between the books and read all the four in one go.
Thus, in August in terms of my reading, Ferrante clearly stole the show.
The Quartet begins with My Brilliant Friend, which focuses on Lila and Elena’s childhood and adolescence, proceeds to the second book The Story of a New Name touching upon their youth. In the third book in the series Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Lila and Elena have reached middle age, and in the last book The Story of the Lost Child, the tale moves forward to their maturity and old age.
Given that this is one long story spread over four books, it made more sense to talk about the themes in all the four novels put together. Talking about individual books would have been a difficult task without mentioning spoilers. Indeed, each book ends on a cliffhanger, and in every subsequent books the story picks up from where it was left off in the previous book.
Here’s how the Quartet begins…
The year is 2010, when Elena Greco, now in her sixties, receives a phone call from Rino, who is Lila Cerullo’s son. Rino tells Elena that Lila has disappeared. He is concerned.
Elena is not really perturbed. She recalls Lila dropping hints of disappearing – of deleting herself entirely – whenever they met earlier, and does not take it too seriously.
But when it dawns on her that this time Lila has left for good without leaving any trace, Elena sits down to pen the story of Lila and their lifelong friendship…
She was expanding the concept of trace out of all proportion. She wanted not only to disappear herself, now at the age of sixty-six, but also to eliminate the entire life that she had left behind.
I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.
An Intense and Tangled Female Friendship
The complex friendship between Lila Cerullo and Elene Greco is really the heart and soul of the Neapolitan Novels. And it is a complicated friendship that ebbs and flows as time moves on.
Since Elena is the narrator, we see everything though her eyes. Elena recalls those first moments of their friendship, when both climb the steep stairs to Don Achille’s house, a man considered to be the ogre of fairy tales and feared in the neighbourhood.
My friendship with Lila began the day we decided to go up the dark stairs that led, step after step, flight after flight, to the door of Don Achille’s apartment. I remember the violet light of the courtyard, the smells of a warm spring evening. The mothers were making dinner, it was time to go home, but we delayed, challenging each other, without ever saying a word, testing our courage.
Lila is fiery, outspoken and fiercely intelligent. Elena is also clever and brilliant and does consistently well in school, but only through hard work. For Lila this comes effortlessly. As children, it is Lila who takes centrestage, while Elena is only too happy to follow her.
Both the girls push each other to do their best when it comes to education, books and learning – a respite from the stultifying environment not only in their respective families but also in the neighbourhood.
And yet, after elementary school, their paths diverge.
For Elena, her friendship with Lila has its ups and downs – a trend that is seen throughout their lives. Lila inspires and eggs Elena to excel in school and later on in her career. And yet, there are times when her frankness and meanness compels Elena to break off ties with Lila and keep her at bay.
And while as a child Elena is content playing second fiddle to Lila, the same is not the case in their adult life. As Elena gains a more public profile, she broods over languishing in Lila’s shadow… in the confines of their neighbourhood that does seem to be the case…
And yet next to her, in the place where we were born, I was only a decoration, that is, I bore witness to Lila’s merits. Those who had known us from birth attributed to her, to the force of her attraction, the fact that the neighbourhood could have on its streets an esteemed person like me.
It is not a straightforward friendship but one that is entwined with rivalry and jealousy in equal measure. As their stories progress and they drift in and out of each other’s lives, Elena always wonders whether she has ultimately gained the upper hand over Lila. Or was her success illusory and it was always Lila who had the edge? It’s a recurring theme that runs throughout the four novels.
For instance, in the first book, Elena ponders…
Sometimes I even had the impression that it was Lila who depended on me and not I on her. I had crossed the boundaries of the neighbourhood, I went to the high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like her, with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers.
And then in the third book, Elena ruminates…
Become. It was a verb that had always obsessed me, but I realized it for the first time only in that situation. I wanted to become, even though I had never known what. And I had become, that was certain, but without an object, without a real passion, without a determined ambition. I had wanted to become something – here was the point – only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.
The Pulsating Drama in the Neighbourhood
Ferrante has done a brilliant job of conjuring up the neighbourhood in Naples where the girls grew up – a tough, poor and violent place. It’s a claustrophobic environment where violence rules the roost. Arguments and quarrels are settled through aggressive and forceful means. Women are regularly beaten up by their husbands and are resigned to their fates. The stench of poverty permeates everywhere.
The cast of characters, other than Lila and Elena, are also richly drawn and have distinctive identities of their own.
It’s when the action shifts to the neighbourhood that Ferrante’s writing really gets intense, feverish, and utterly compelling as she wonderfully captures the pulse of this environment, all the action and the dreariness.
Dreams of Escape
There is this set piece in the first novel that gives an early indication of how the lives of both women will eventually pan out…Having never set a foot outside their neighbourhood, Lila and Elena decide to bunk school one day and trek all the way to the sea. It’s Lila’s daring plan, and Elena not wanting to be left out agrees. They set out in the morning. They pass through the tunnel (the entry to their neighbourhood) and venture outside for the first time, but there is still a long way to traverse before they reach the sea. Halfway through, it starts pouring and the girls are soaked. Lila is frightened and wants to turn back and head home (although it was her idea in the first place), but it’s Elena who is now reluctant wanting to carry on towards the sea.
It’s a precursor to what lies in store for them in the future. Desperate to escape from her dull origins, Elena, through sheer hard work and a single minded focus on her education and career, manages to escape from Naples to begin life anew in the intellectually stimulating cities of Milan and Florence.
She does return to Naples later but with an awareness that enables her to gauge and reflect on her origins, an awareness that is refined by her interaction with the intellectual elite in Florence and Milan.
Lila, on the other hand, never ends up setting a foot outside Naples of which we are given an inkling pretty much in the first few pages.
This is also a time when they are hardly ever in touch, busy with their own lives. And yet, the bond of friendship still endures.
Pleasures and Pitfalls of Marriage & Motherhood
This theme occupies central focus in the third novel of the series. Elena has found her calling as a writer but she finds that the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood are occupying most of her time, stalling her creative efforts.
Elena frets over the pains she has taken to complete her education and the fear of not living up to her full potential as domestic chores bog her down.
Later, as Elena struggles to balance her work commitments and attending to her children’s needs, this is what she is told…
Think about it. A woman separated, with two children and your ambitions, has to take account of reality and decide what she can give up and what she can’t.
Interestingly enough, Lila after having to come to terms with a disappointing marriage, takes great pains to nurture her son’s development so that he can rise above the stifling fates that befall the men in the neighbourhood.
Thus, whether the right care or attention (or lack thereof) given to their children in the early formative years plays any role in shaping up their personalities is another theme that Ferrante explores in the novels.
Of Feminism & Charting Careers
The women in Lila and Elena’s lives were confined to that of a homemaker. Violence between the spouses was never far behind. Their ambitions were restricted to marrying well and having children.
In that sense, Lila and Elena are different as they fought to remain independent. While Elena capitalizes on her education to propel her career forward, Lila’s brilliance enables her to dabble in various business ventures with great success.
Meanwhile, Elena in her role as a writer reflects on the status of women and how what they are is based on how the men invent them, even publishing a book on this theme. And yet, is she also guilty of falling prey to this even as she becomes successful?
Was I lying to myself when I portrayed myself as free and autonomous? And was I lying to my audience when I played the part of someone who, with her two small books, had sought to help every woman confess what she couldn’t say to herself? Were they mere formulas that it was convenient for me to believe in while in fact I was no different from my more traditional contemporaries? In spite of all the talk was I letting myself be invented by a man to the point where his needs were imposed on mine and those of my daughters?
The Ever Changing Political Background
While Lila and Elena’s story plays out in the small world of their neighbourhood, their lives are not immune from the broader changes in the political landscape of Italy.
Ferrante weaves in many political elements into the fabric of the story and the impact it has on the lives of both the central and the secondary characters – the corruption, mafia, student demonstrations and protests, the left-wing movement, and the Years of Lead (which marked incidents of violence and terrorism by both the right and the left wings).
A Tale of Two Women
Ultimately, what makes the portrayal of Lila and Elena so compelling is that they are strong women with fascinating personalities. And yet they are not likeable all the time; they make mistakes, which essentially makes them real.
By virtue of her dazzling personality, Lila dominates the first two books. But Elena’s development as a strong, intelligent and cultured woman in her own right is also equally satisfying. And this is much more apparent in the final two novels.
Indeed, in a particularly trying time for Elena, her mother (with whom she has a strained relationship) communicates her confidence in Elena’s ability to manage and survive and deal with her problems head on.
An Intricate Plot…
The novels in the Neapolitan Quartet are superbly and intricately plotted, the writing is passionate, furious, absorbing, and highly addictive. One interesting thing I noticed is the way Ferrante plays with time. For instance, in the second book, a substantial part of the middle section is devoted to Lila and Elena’s holiday in Ischia, whereas in the last novel, an entire decade is described in probably the same number of pages. This in no takes away anything from the novels (although the Ischia section could have been shortened), but only adds to their overall allure.
To conclude, Lila and Elena’s incredible journey – filled with happiness, success, upheavals and sorrow – simply leaps off the pages. And I was sorry when I finally turned the last page of the final novel and had to let them go!
Meytal Radzinski, the inspiration behind Women in Translation month every August, is looking to compile a list of top 100 women in translation titles. All those who want to participate have to nominate their 10 best books for the purpose. Here are the precise rules…
I have read some great books by Women Writers in Translation over the years and had a tough time narrowing down the list to ten.
Having said that, here are the 10 books that I nominate…
My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two girls – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. My Brilliant Friend begins their story when the girls are eight years old and ends when they turn sixteen. Intense, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, this is a fabulous and highly addictive novel (as are the subsequent books in the series).
Billed as Japan’s equivalent of Wuthering Heights, A True Novel is an expansive story charting the doomed relationship between the brooding and intense Taro Azumo and the beautiful Yoko. The story is narrated by Fumiko (the Nelly Dean of the novel), although she is very much a finely etched character in her own right. Despite the comparison to the Bronte classic, A True Novel is strong enough to stand on its own. Set in post-war Japan, the novel also examones class differences and the meteoric rise and fall of Japan’s economy.
Katri Kling is an outcast who lives in the village with her simpleminded brother. She hates white lies and can see straight to the core of any problem. Anna Aemelin is just the opposite – a respected member of the village, but aloof. Anna has something Katri wants, and to get it Katri will take control of Anna’s life and livelihood.
The Vegetarian – Han Kang
One day, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat – an act of revolt unheard of in Korean society, thereby shocking her family. Combining three tales told from the viewpoints of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister (Yeong-hye is the central focus in the novel although we never hear her voice), this is an excellent novel that examines rebellion, mental illness, and desire. It’s the book that has made me a fan of Han Kang and I intend to read every novel of hers that is released.
The Looking Glass Sisters – Gohril Gabrielsen
Two sisters – one is bedridden, the other is the carer – live in a remote town in Northern Norway. This is a riveting, psychological tale narrated by the bed ridden sister. Are they living harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? This is a story in which all is not necessarily what it seems.
A young, recently divorced Japanese woman and her daughter move into an apartment filled with light. This is a bracing, unsettling yet poignant tale in which Tsushima, in unflinching and crystal clear prose, highlights the challenges of being a single parent.
Sphinx is a love story between the narrator (who is never named) and A***, who is a dancer in America. But what makes this novel interesting is this – throughout the book the gender of both the narrator and A*** is never revealed.
La Femme de Gilles – Madeleine Bourdouxhe
Elisa loves her husband Gilles deeply and her world revolves around him. Until her sister Victorine appears on the scene causing her much anguish. This is a beautifully rendered tale of desire and the fear of losing what you value the most.