Review Blog

Nov 05 2015

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

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Neapolitan series. Text, 2015. ISBN 9781925240511
(Age: Adult - senior secondary) This is the concluding volume in Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan series. The first three books show Lenu and Lila growing up in a slum in Naples. Though Lila has an audacious intelligence she leaves school early, marries a brute and works at a demeaning job in a sausage factory while Lenu forces herself on through university and becomes a writer about feminist politics when she marries into a northern family with influence. In this final volume the action returns to Naples which is as turbulent and corrupt as ever. Lenu, now a successful writer and having an affair with Nino, her childhood friend who is now a brilliant and radical academic, returns to the slum district where they grew up. She continues to have a tempestuous relationship with Lila, who now is mastering the new technology of computing. Lenu's family and friends initially reject her but eventually accept her new situation and enjoy her success although they show no interest in her writing as such. Lila is now a respected business woman, while the Fascist gangsters the Solaro brothers are still her declared enemies. When Lenu realizes that Nino has always been and always will be unfaithful she rejects him and grows closer to Lila, particularly as they are both pregnant. The babies, girls, seem destined to relive the friendship of their mothers, especially as Tina, Lila's child, is precocious and beautiful, as Lila always was, while Imma is more insecure as Lenu has always been. However, Tina, aged four, disappears from the street and is never found. The Solaro brothers have clashed with Lila and her partner and are suspected but seem to be determined to help. Lila's behaviour becomes more erratic while Lenu's career continues to flourish. Lila becomes more nihilistic and questions the value of life; she examines the history of Naples and finds endless examples of cruelty being replaced with kindness which is then swamped by more cruelty.
In the background of the novel the politics of Naples and Italy repeat this pattern. The 1950's and '60's struggle between the Communists and the Fascists is replaced by different political allegiances but the one point of consistency is corruption which reaches into even the most respected levels of academia as well as politics and business. Lenu's mother-in-law, an aristocrat from an 'old' family, blames those with intelligence but with no traditions. Lenu realizes that she herself is still an outsider in some cultural circles, but also that all in the community condone corruption by turning a blind eye to it. Lila, however, believes that there are no options as the law is ineffectual. Lenu's daughters leave Italy and she herself leaves Naples. She has her greatest success when she writes the story of her friendship with Lila and the loss of Lila's child, which parallels the story of the two dolls the girls lost in childhood.
The writing is powerful and fierce in its portrayals of love, loyalty, friendships, family relationships and politics. The themes are most particularly female friendship, the relationships between mothers and daughters and the influence of place. The coarse language and attitudes of the local Neapolitans is vividly captured as is the hypocrisy of the cultured classes. Ferrante juxtaposes the crudeness of the local dialect with the purity of Italian to emphasize class distinctions but while social position and morality are not necessarily linked leaving the slums of Naples tends to be regarded as a victory.
The novel can be read as a stand alone and is recommended for competent readers. It powerfully deals with the issues of women's friendships and family lives, and with the political and social issues in Italy in the second half of the twentieth century.
Jenny Hamilton

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