Book of the month: Elena Varvello

Just over three years ago, an Italian novel tempted me out of book-reviewing retirement and formed the subject of the first of my Book of the month posts on this blog. You might have heard of the author – a reclusive chronicler of Naples life who was rising rapidly to fame in the anglophone world when I encountered her work and has since achieved massive international success.

I’m talking, of course, about Elena Ferrante; it was the first in her Neapolitan series, titled My Brilliant Friend in English and translated by Ann Goldstein, that persuaded me to start posting about books again on this blog. I was sent a copy by Daniela Petracco, tireless champion of great literature originating in languages other than English and UK director of Europa Editions. I loved the book and knew I had to tell people about it (I’ve since read The Days of Abandonment and for my money it’s even better than the Neapolitan novels).

So when I received an advance translation of a new Italian novel and, skimming through the publicity material, saw that one of its supporters was Daniela Petracco, I decided I would have to try it. My resolve strengthened when I turned to the Acknowledgements and saw that, far from simply supporting the novel, Petracco was Varvello’s first reader. The chances were that this book would be good.

At first glance, Elena Varvello’s Can You Hear Me? has all the hallmarks of a commercial thriller. The premise is typically high stakes – a young woman’s disappearance in a remote community, a boy’s murder, and a man losing his mind as his son comes of age. Then there’s the opening sentence: ‘In the August of 1978, the summer I met Anna Trabuio, my father took a girl into the woods.’ So far, so nail-biting.

Yet those who venture further into the pages expecting the novel to be nothing more than a page-turner are in for a surprise. For this book offers so much more.

Varvello has published two collections of poetry and it shows. Not only is her writing (translated here by Alex Valente) taut, but it is also exquisitely precise. Rather than scatter-gunning the reader with details, she selects one telling enough to convey an entire character or mood. From the way a person watches their reflection in a mirror, or the briefest of exchanges, the author conjures entire scenes, imbuing her pages by turns with menace, nostalgia and wistfulness.

This talent for concision enables her to convey profound observations without falling into the trap of expressing points too directly or knowingly. Time and again, characters are able to articulate what they are experiencing with stunning clarity, while remaining locked in the fatal subjectivity that is the essence of human experience and – in this and so many other great stories – prevents them from taking the actions that might avert disaster.

Chief among the cast of blinkered individuals is the narrator, Elia’s, father, whose redundancy and subsequent breakdown are the catalysts for much of the action. Menacingly erratic and yet pitiable, he towers from the page.

Varvello’s play with perspective and timeshift adds another layer of fascination. Exploiting many of the possibilities that telling the story through Elia’s eyes at 30 years’ remove presents, she interlaces different threads, employing several voices to blur the lines between memory and fantasy, empathy and repugnance, innocence and guilt.

While keeping the thread of the plot tightly wound and making heavy use of foreshadowing to sustain readers’ interest, she manages not to strike the nakedly manipulative tone that often topples the backdrop in less sophisticated works. Although some will find the sombre foreboding that suffuses the narrative a little monochrome, there is no doubt that the atmosphere is skilfully created. At points the writing is breathtakingly deft.

The result is an engrossing and troubling book that hangs big questions on the taut wire of a gripping plot. Like her namesake Ferrante, Elena Varvello knows how to keep readers hooked. We shall see more of her work.

Can You Hear Me? (La vita felice) by Elena Varvello, translated from the Italian by Alex Valente (Two Roads, 2017)

*New* Book of the month: Elena Ferrante

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When I wrote the final post of my Year of Reading the World, back on 31 December 2012, I thought this blog was finished. As the first months of 2013 went by, however, I discovered the world had other ideas.

Not only was I immersed in research about global literature for my forthcoming book, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer, but I found myself constantly coming into contact with interesting projects and initiatives that I wanted to let you know about.

The book recommendations from readers all over the planet kept coming in too (they still do to this day), so I decided to update the list every now and then to make sure that none of the excellent suggestions go to waste.

But it didn’t stop there: various publishers also jumped on the band wagon, frequently emailing to ask whether they could send me books in the hope that I might blog about them. Even when I explained that I wasn’t reviewing books on this site anymore, some people still posted me their titles.

Such was the case with Daniela Petracco, director of Europa Editions UK. Although I told her that I wouldn’t write about Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, she insisted on sending me a copy along with a glowing description of the work, so convinced was she of its power.

All credit to her, because the novel might have sat on my to-read mountain for a long time had it not been for Petracco’s belief in it. Something about the way she described the story and her enthusiasm for it made it stand out in my memory so that when I came to choose my next read last week, my hand reached for it, bypassing many titles that have been waiting for weeks, months and even years.

What followed was an enthralling reading experience, reminiscent of those childhood immersions in a story that turn the volume of the real world down to a whisper. It impressed and delighted me – and it was powerful enough to make me revoke my decision not to do any more book reviewing on this blog because I simply had to let you know about it (despite her success in Italy, the reclusive Ferrante is very little known in the Anglophone world – last year, the Economist declared that she ‘may be the best contemporary novelist you have never heard of’).

Indeed, reading Ferrante’s novel has inspired me to introduce a regular review slot. From now on, I will choose one ‘Book of the month’ that has stood out from among the titles I’ve read (perhaps recommended by you, stumbled upon by me or sent by a passionate advocate) and publish a post on the last Tuesday of the month about it.

So, without further ado, here’s a little insight into what makes My Brilliant Friend: Childhood, Adolescence such a tour de force.

Charting a close friendship between two girls , Elena and Lila, growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood in 1950s Naples, this, the first volume in a trilogy, depicts the rabble of circumstances, character traits and incidents that conspire to make us dream of a better life while condemning us to be who we are. From the jealousy that steers the central characters between cruelty and fierce loyalty, at once sabotaging and supporting each other, to the bitter realities that blight the hopes of figures such as Lila’s brother, Rino – tormented by visions of a family shoemaking empire but without the focus and application to see it through – and the wretched Melina, driven mad by her love for a philandering poet, Ferrante shows us the levers working the vice that warps and crushes the human soul.

Menace is everywhere. Whether in the childhood imaginings that shape the ogre-like figure of Don Achille or the all-too-real characters of the Solara brothers, terrorising the area with their Camorra connections, violence is only ever a mistimed comment away. Straitjacketed by honour codes that at once protect and hobble them, Elena and Lila must make desperate choices to have a hope of exercising some sort of control over their lives.

Now and then, the narrative doesn’t hold together as tightly as it could. Ferrante gives us a few too many TV-style recaps of events and there are occasional statements that contradict what has gone before – at a wedding towards the end of the book, for example, we read that ‘it was clear no one who had received an invitation wanted to miss it’ shortly after we have just witnessed the local school teacher spurn an attempt to get her to attend.

Some readers may also be frustrated by the mismatch between the prologue, set in the present day presumably some way towards the conclusion of the yet-to-be-published (in English) third book in the trilogy, and the main narrative, which only goes up until the mid-1960s. Unlike works that make up many other literary trilogies, this novel cannot really be said to stand alone.

Nevertheless, if the trade-off is that we have to read on to find all the ends tied up, it’s a sacrifice few are likely to mind making. Hmmn, I wonder if I can persuade Daniela Petracco to send me the next book…

My Brilliant Friend (L’amica geniale) by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2012; 2013)