Waterstones Book of the Year Shortlist: My Brilliant Friend
Some books are so immersive you barely come up for air. You willfully get lost inside them. You are not sure if you devour them or they devour you. My Brilliant Friend is that kind of book.
You may think that this is just the pleasant story of one woman’s life, from her childhood, through her womanhood, to the cusp of old age – a story of marriage, friendship and family in Italy. But the characters are from Naples, the home of the Camorra, and life, as the narrator Elena Greco says, is “full of violence”. This is a story about the darker side of being human. It is about lies and deception, power and submission, loss and greed. One you will not be able to put down.
The overriding impression of Elena, the narrator, is that truth is everything to her. And it can seem like she deals not in the virtuous truth - more the viscous truth She admits with a kind of brazen honesty all of her cruelest thoughts and feelings - about her children, her lovers, her friends. These are sentiments we all recognise, at least in part, but as the kind to keep internal, suppressed, and unvoiced. Part of what makes Ferrante’s writing so powerful is its fierce, uncompromising exploration of complex, private, subconscious truths.
Power, and power struggles, underpins the narrative. Even as children, the characters all display an innate understanding of who to outwardly respect, who is important, and who is not, in society. And of course there are the domestic conflicts between men and women, battles Ferrante suggests women have always lost, at least in Neapolitan society.
Identity and memory are central to the story too. The book is in many ways about the many selves we are throughout our lives. We travel to new places, change, develop but because memory can send us back to old familiar places and previous selves, she suggests, we actually become those older selves again. We flick between the present and the past in an instant. Who we are is seen to be in constant flux – we are at the mercy of our memories. There is little certainty in Ferrante’s universe.
My Brilliant Friend is expansive and ambitious and it rushes on at a pace. The brutality of the narrator’s honesty– her ardour – her anger – her fearlessness in depicting the most honest, uncomfortable aspects of life, makes the words and the pages sing.
Passion and anger that burns this bright is both astonishing and compulsive. You will feel invigorated. Then you will have to explain to everyone you know why this book is so important.