The Story of a Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Anna Goldstein, and published in Australia by Text, is the final volume in the Neapolitan quartet, a mammoth work published over the last three years, by a pseudonymous Italian author.
When I finished the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, I was fascinated but ambivalent. This is part of my review of it, in an earlier blog I wrote, “A Mixed Bag: Books I’ve Read Lately”:
At best I can say this is an interesting and intriguing book but it didn’t grip me and make me want to see what happens after the end of the story. It gave me a window into an unfamiliar world, but I felt very much an outsider to it; perhaps this reflects how Elena felt, a misfit, longing to get outside the confines of this narrow world, trapped in it by her childhood, seeing education as her escape. Whereas Lila, the wild one, remains trapped. I will read the sequels.
As I’ve read the sequels, I have remained ambivalent. On the one hand, I admire the author’s immense skill in weaving the complex story of the lives of two friends and the large cast of characters who revolve around them in a strange galaxy where loyalty, love and creativity are inextricably mixed with hatred, lust, betrayal, manipulation and disillusionment. Where the central character, Elena or Lenu, educates herself out of her violent, impoverished, chaotic background, marries a professor and becomes a successful author and feminist theorist. Where her friend and soulmate, Lila, who she always suspects is more brilliant than she is, remains trapped in the Naples they were born into, but keeps drawing Lenu back into that world. Where serially they love and abandon the radical, brilliant man from their neighbourhood who uses and betrays them. Lenu, the narrator, struggles to tell the story of their friendship, to distil the essence of her friend, and ultimately fails. In the process, Lenu loses the love of her life (through disillusionment) and Lila loses her daughter, a little girl of seven who mysteriously disappears. They grow old, Lila disappears, and Lenu asks: “What is the point of these pages, then? I intended to capture her, to have her beside me again, and I will die without knowing if I succeeded.” Then, she receives a parcel roughly wrapped in newspaper. To reveal what is in it would be even more of a spoiler than those I’ve already given away. Suffice to say, it is a relic from their childhood together, and Lenu is unable to interpret it, and is left with two conflicting stories of their entwined destinies: one of deception, one of the return of friendship. “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines towards obscurity, not clarity.”
Obscure it remains, and perhaps that is why I am ambivalent. Perhaps I am an incurable romantic and redemptionist, and want the characters in a story to reach some sort of resolution or at least awareness. Perhaps these Neapolitan stories are too postmodern for me, too open-ended, ambiguous, unresolved, like a secret that has no heart, kept alive only by the mystery. So although I was compelled to keep reading till I finished, I quickly forgot the world I had witnessed, and the only thing that has made me revisit it is a wish to tidy my desk by writing a blog about it so I can put it away on the shelf.