Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (2012/3)

Ferrante2I am relatively late to reading Elena Ferrante compared to many book bloggers I know, but here (in Ann Goldstein’s translation) is the second of her ‘Neapolitan’ novels, chronicling the friendship of Elena and Lila. The Story of a New Name begins where My Brilliant Friend left off, with Lila’s wedding; and treats the two women’s late adolescence in the 1950s and ‘60s. It’s a time when the friends’ paths start to diverge more solidly than before: Elena the steady narrator, full of self-doubt, who nevertheless gets into university; and Lila, dazzling to Elena from a distance, who married into money as a way to transcend her origins, but who never quite seems to find contentment.

It’s the emotional set-pieces that draw me the most to Ferrante’s work, especially the complexities of the protagonists’ friendship. Here, for example, is Elena after she has been invited to a party by Professor Galiani (a high-school teacher whom she admires), and Lila has offered to accompany her:

I was afraid that Stefano [Lila’s husband] wouldn’t let her come. I was afraid that Stefano would let her. I was afraid that she would dress in an ostentatious fashion, the way she had when she went to the Solaras. I was afraid that, whatever she wore, her beauty would explode like a star and everyone would be eager to grab a fragment of it. I was afraid that she would express herself in dialect, that she would say something vulgar, that it would become obvious that school for her had ended with an elementary-school diploma. I was afraid that, if she merely opened her mouth, everyone would be hypnotized by her intelligence and Professor Galiani herself would be entranced. I was afraid that the professor would find her both presumptious and naïve and would say to me: Who is this friend of yours, stop seeing her. I was afraid she would understand that I was only Lila’s pale shadow and would be interested not in me any longer but in her, she would want to see her again, she would undertake to make her go back to school. (p. 151)

This is quite a lengthy quotation, but it illustrates the density that Ferrante’s prose can reach, and the ambivalence that’s at the heart of Elena’s and Lila’s friendship. Elena doesn’t know whether to be more worried that Lila will embarrass or overshadow her; and, though so many of Elena’s thoughts on this party come back to herself, she’s also afraid that going there may end up with Lila losing what makes her brilliant.

Social and political change are in the background of The Story of a New Name, but decisively so: being exposed to new political ideas drives Elena down her career path; and a desire for betterment is behind Lila’s choices – though her position in society doesn’t make it easy. As with My Brilliant Friend, this second novel ends on something of a cliffhanger – a reminder that the story of these women’s lives will continue, and a suggestion that there are more changes to come.

Stuart Evers, Your Father Sends His Love (2015)

father

Dean and Rachel had married at twenty; their lack of other sexual experiences a shock to others. As their friends’ relationships became soured and twisted, hoarse from shouting and bitter from drink, Dean and Rachel’s home was a constant: a clam place to hide, a sofa on which to sleep, a place of caring and safety. When later they managed to secure a mortgage on a two-up, two-down, Dean and Rachel’s more infrequent guests swapped the sofa for their own room and bed.

By their early thirties, Dean and Rachel’s relationship had become underscored by a quiet yet growing sense of trauma. The friends who’d crashed their sofa got married and Dean and Rachel went to their weddings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa had children, and Dean and Rachel went to their naming parties and christenings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa asked them to be godparents and Dean and Rachel politely declined. The IVF was an expensive joke.

This is a passage from ‘Frequencies’, a short story in Stuart Evers’ new collection Your Father Sends His Love, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

David Lagercrantz, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (2009/15)

WilmslowI’m slightly wary of fiction that centres on genuine historical figures. It comes from a personal preference: that I’m not particularly interested in using historical fiction to learn about history – I want the experience of reading fiction first and foremost. So I prefer something like Mrs. Hemingway, which casts its material into interesting fictional shapes, over a thinly-veiled historical biography. The line between the two is fine, and can be tricky to walk.

Despite my natural wariness, I was intrigued by the sound of this novel by David Lagercrantz (the author who’s continuing Steig Larsson’s Millennium series). Set in 1954, Fall of Man in Wilmslow (which is translated from the Swedish by George Goulding) focuses on Leonard Corell, a police detective investigating the death of Alan Turing, who has apparently killed himself with a poisoned apple.

Corell’s position means that he has to work backwards: at first he knows simply that Turing was convicted for performing homosexual acts. Only later does he learn about Turing’s mathematical work, and later still about his work at Bletchley Park. For me, this led to a curious inversion of what can often happen with translated fiction: rather than coming across unfamiliar terms, I actually knew more about Turing’s story (in outline, if not detail) than the protagonist. Perhaps that’s why I found that Fall of Man in Wilmslow never quite shook off its biographical aspect.

In terms of the novel-as-novel, Lagercrantz casts Corell as a part-reflection of Turing: for example, he has his own flashes of brilliance, being able to deduce the kind of secret work that Turing was undertaking at Bletchley, which brings him to the attention of those who would rather that such things were kept secret. It’s an interesting frame for Turing’s story, though perhaps inevitably Corell is not as compelling a figure as the mathematician. Fall of Man in Wilmslow walks that fine line, but not quite deftly enough.

Robert Williams, Into the Trees (2014)

WilliamsIt begins with a knock on the door: Harriet Norton answers to find four masked men, who want a word with her father. We move back eight years, when Thomas and Ann Norton move to their secluded barn conversion in the forest, purely because it seems to be the only place where baby Harriet doesn’t cry. This is a nicely handled opening by Robert Williams: it evokes the characters’ mixed emotions (a combination of guilt at doing this, and resignation that something had to be done). It sets a theme of decisions being taken at a particular moment, and going to have longer-term consequences. And it throws the reader off balance, because it’s a tragicomic situation following that dramatic prologue.

We may then expect (which is to say, I expected) Into the Trees to start working towards that confrontation with the masked men. This it does, but more quickly than I anticipated, so the actual confrontation plays out about a third of the way in. For the whole of that first third, I had the wonderful sense (rarer than one might imagine) of not knowing at all where the book might head.

It settled down eventually into a thoughtful exploration of the personal consequences of such a dramatic event. Besides the Nortons, Williams’ other key characters are Raymond Farren, a misfit farm labourer who becomes friends (of sorts) with Thomas; and Raymond’s neighbour Keith Sullivan, who feels short-changed by life and is determined to set things right. Each protagonist is challenged by the novel’s events: Thomas is shaken by the thought that he can’t protect his family, which puts strain on his relationship with Ann; Raymond finds the stability in his life under threat; Keith may get what he wants, but struggles to hold on to it. All in all, Into the Trees is engaging stuff; thanks to Ray Robinson for bringing it to my attention.

Michael Stewart, Café Assassin (2015)

Cafe AssassinA few years ago, I enjoyed Michael Stewart’s debut novel, King Crow – so I was really pleased to discover that he had a new book out. Café Assassin is quite different in subject from its predecessor, but it has the same tension, rooted in a strong first-person voice that feels as though it could go anywhere.

The owner of that voice is Nick Smith, newly released from prison twenty-two years after being wrongly convicted of murder. His words are addressed to Andrew Honour, a childhood friend on whom Nick now seeks revenge. Nick looks at Andrew’s life – a successful job as a QC, happily married to his old girlfriend Liv, on whom Nick always had a crush – and wants what he sees. Over the course of the novel, Nick gets back on his feet, and gradually inveigles his way into Andrew’s and Liv’s lives – but to what end?

I found Café Assassin to have an enormous narrative pull, which comes from the ambivalent attitude we develop towards Nick: we know he has seriously been wronged, but we also learn what a violent individual he can be; we want Nick to have some sort of resolution, but not necessarily the kind of revenge it appears he’s working towards. Beyond the plot, there’s a mutable quality to Stewart’s prose, and the sense of identity Nick creates in his account. Nick has to remind himself that it’s not 1989 but 2011, and there a constant sense of dislocation as the gap of years is opened and bridged and opened again. Then there are the interstitial chapters in second-person, which describe Nick’s life in prison; these aren’t a straightforward contrast with the first-person text, but intersect with it at right-angles, adding a further layer of complexity. If we never quite know where Café Assassin will end up, perhaps it’s because we never quite have the measure of its protagonist – and the sense is that perhaps he doesn’t even have the full measure of himself.

Café Assassin is published by Bluemoose Books.

Sunny Singh, Hotel Arcadia (2015)

SinghThis was my first time reading Sunny Singh, who’s written two previous novels and a variety of non-fiction; after Hotel Arcadia, I clearly need to explore that earlier work. We begin as Sam, a war photographer, wakes to find that her hotel is under attack from terrorists; rather than stay in her room, she heads out to see what images she can find. She is observed and aided by Abhi in the manager’s office, who waits anxiously for help while his lover Dieter is among those being held hostage.

Hotel Arcadia revolves around the distance between image and reality. Singh highlights the tensions of contradiction inherent in Sam’s position: a photographer who brings the reality (but is it really?) conflict to people’s attention, yet who ultimately steps in and out of others’ war-ravaged lives, and makes art from their suffering. Abhi becomes an interesting point of comparison and contrast with her:: both characters chose careers of which their parents disapproved (one because she went close to war, the other because he stayed away from it). Both have also struggled to form long-term relationships – but, while Sam finds her partner pushed away, Abhi feels liberated by his casual (so far) liaison with Dieter.

Singh makes effective use of the artificial, enclosed environment of the hotel. The actual attack is pushed into the background, heightening the focus on the two characters, and turning the hotel into a kind of parody (though not a frivolous one) of Sam’s usual working environment. In this way, the Hotel Arcadia becomes a zone of denser reality in which whole lives can be lived in the space of a few days – and we, as readers, live them all too.

Hotel Arcadia is published by Quartet Books.

More reviews of Hotel Arcadia: Samira Sawlani for Media Diversified; Live Many Lives; Liz Loves Books.

Sara Taylor, The Shore (2015): Shiny New Books review

ShoreThere’s a new issue of Shiny New Books in the world, and it includes my review of The Shore, the debut novel by Sara Taylor. The Shore is set on a small group of islands off the coast of Virginia, and focuses on the members of two families over a span of 350 years (reaching into both the past and future). The chapters are arranged non-chronologically, meaning that the reader has gradually to piece together the complex picture of family secrets that emerges.

You can read my review in full here.