‘Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.’
A more condensed narrative than the rather sprawling Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante’s new novel is a classic bildungsroman with an interesting gothic flavour. As with the Quartet’s main figures, our new narrator, Giovanna, is focused on her growing awareness of her appearance and identity in a world of adults and their secrets. It’s that emergence from the relative security and certainties of childhood that Ferrante does particularly well; as we meet her, Giovanna has overheard her father comparing his daughter to a mysterious aunt she has never met. The fact that this aunt is cast as the villain in their family narrative sets Giovanna on her adolescent self-discovery.
Traces of the gothic run throughout Giovanna’s narrative – she frequently tells us she’s not sure about a particular detail or memory, casting doubt of the veracity of her story at times – from the black coffin-like erasure of faces in old photos, to the endless sense of Giovanna being pursued by men (and women) fascinated by her. Her aunt, Vittoria, is a dark and haunted figure, hellbent on exercising her iron will on those she loves. Ferrante’s Naples is labyrinthine in its twist of streets and neighbourhoods, making escape for the more aspirational seemingly impossible. The divisions between the two parts of the city are echoed in Giovanna’s sense of clashing identities, and there’s also a sense that the city’s binary division is played out in the construction of the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters in the young Giovanna’s mind – although she comes to realise that such ideas are too simplistic.
There’s very much a sense of Giovanna’s determination to tell her own story here, in part to make sense of those around her,
‘… almost without realising it, I came close to giving [Vittoria and Margherita] the capacity to fly through night skies or invent magic potions as they gathered enchanted herbs in the Capodiamonte woods’,
but if this is a gothic tale of desire and sexual pursuit, Giovanna refuses to cede control over her own life. There’s a heavy emphasis on family expectations here, and I found the motif of the bracelet a little tiring – given the determination to make this a plausible adolescent voice, I found that thread a little too neat. But there’s no doubt that this is a fascinating novel of ideas about female beauty and identity, and as such it is a force to be reckoned with.