My daughter, Lucy, is in primary 2 and along with some of my fellow school mums I’ve set up a book club. Or, as Lucy refers to it (with one eyebrow raised and arms crossed) ‘your wine club, mummy’. I’m starting to think children should be seen and not heard. Anyway. Our book this month was one I had never heard of: ‘My Brilliant Friend’, by Elena Ferrante.
Set in Naples in the middle of the last century, My Brilliant Friend describes the unequal relationship between two young girls growing up together in a slum. One escapes her circumstances, the other doesn’t, and you get the impression that the mysterious author may think that the more deserving of the two remained stuck.
My Brilliant Friend is reminiscent of sprawling family dramas or what I imagine American soap operas to be like (be aware my main experience of American soap operas comes from references on Friends) except that it deals with the super poor rather than the super rich.
As one of my own brilliant friends said at the book club, you can usually tell if a book is quality if the sense of place is well realised. Here it certainly is. Reading it is like those first couple of scenes from West Side Story where the camera flies in over the streets of New York.
You can feel the teaming streets of the poor quarters of Naples, the dirt and heat, the dry grit getting into your teeth, and the oppressive feeling when lots of families live cheek by jowl. The mysterious author certainly knows her location.
Lena is the narrator, a girl who is definitely bright. In fact, she’s (and this is her tragedy) bright enough to know that her best friend, Lila, is by leaps and bounds more intelligent and vital than she is. The book is hung around her envy of her friend. We feel her constantly measuring her worth next to Lila’s. We see her caught in the orbit of her brilliant friend, dazzled, in love, and slightly in fear of her. We hear her admiration and her frustration at never quite being able to outshine Lila.
As they grow older, Lena starts to stand on her own feet and accepts that Lila has weaknesses. It becomes clearer that those weaknesses will conspire to destroy her. Lila is independent, impetuous, and despite her intelligence, can’t make good decisions when she’s angry. The more trapped in a situation she is the more she is likely to kick out wildly in order to escape. By the end of the novel the reader will find themselves shouting at the book ‘Don’t do it Lila’! to no avail; Lila’s life is irrevocably changed and she has managed to trap herself in the circumstances she grows up in for good.
I loved this book because it showed through the lives of these two girls how poverty traps you, and an education can set you free. I’d definitely recommend it.
I’ve had no phone this past week and it has driven me crazy. I feel like I’m out of sync with the world. But, there’s always a bright side and in this case it’s been reading tonnes and tonnes instead of picking up my phone and looking up from Buzzfeed two hours later. So I’ve lots to review. The next one is The House of Sand And Fog by Andre Dubus III.
I would not by any stretch of the imagination call this a laugh a minute. In fact I’d say that the house of Sand and Fog is as close to a classical tragedy as you can get without learning ancient Greek.
It’s about a man who buys a house in San Francisco only to find out that it has been sold to him in error by the County and should never have been taken from the original owner. To say much more would spoil the story, and I wouldn’t want to do that as I think this is one I’d put on my 50 books to read before you’re 30 (Sure, that’s in the future for me… ahem.)
The tragedy comes with the structure of the plot. At the beginning, you see all the characters with a number of choices put in front of them. as they start to make those choices the possibility of escaping their respective fates drifts further and further away. By the time you reach the last page the sense of inevitability is so strong you can’t for the life of you think of any way any of the characters could have escaped.
Again, the sense of place is brilliant, but that’s understandable because this book is about homes. What ‘home’ means to you and the extent you would go to protect it, or get it back. It’s also about misunderstanding. Everyone in this book misunderstands the other characters, usually because their emotions cloud their judgement. The author cleverly makes sure that readers are the only people who can see what’s actually going on and so can see the tragedy coming from a long way off.
Many of the characters do the wrong thing and no-one is totally innocent. OK, maybe one of the characters is innocent. But in their place, knowing what they know, the author invites us to consider ‘what would you do’? and more often than not, you find yourself in their place.
I read a book called The Tiger In The Well ages ago, and what struck me with that was, if you were a woman in Victorian London, how quickly men could take every last shred of independence from you. There’s echoes of that in here too.
I could write about The House of Sand and Fog for hours. I will probably bore people in pubs discussing it and pushing it into their mental ‘to buy’ lists. As I say, it’s not the happiest book I’ve read, but it was the most satisfying in a long time.
Afterthought: Sally Lockheart would definitely be invited to my Victorian Heroines Fantasy Dinner Party.