Led by the trusted opinions of four or five of the Australian Book Review’s critics in their year-end round-up of best reads for 2015, how could I not pick up Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet?
This turned out to be one continuous picaresque story that I devoured end to end through the month of January and if it were a tour-de-force in terms of reading those 1,700 gripping pages that charted the tumultuous and violent journey of the narrator Lenù and her best friend Lila, I can’t help wondering what must it have been like for the writer. It seemed to me that the breathless style in which it was written demanded a similarly rapid assimilation on the part of the reader and it certainly provided a riveting start to this year’s reading ventures.
But, pace aside, what appealed to me most was how immediately – from the first sentence – I was drawn into the lives of the narrator Lenù and Lila. As the story progresses Lila becomes both Lenù’s idol and her rival, a girl and then woman whom the narrator both admires and mistrusts, likes and dislikes, but cannot do without – her brilliant, unreliable ‘friend’. This pairing of opposites leads to a balancing of the narrative between introspection and action with the result that I found myself living for the greater part of the four books in the head of the narrator, but the restlessness and the realness of the characters that peopled these pages was such that boredom was never an issue. And this is a guess only, but from the way in which the fourth book ended, I’m betting that there will be another book – or two – to come.
Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym with the author’s real name known only to her publishers and while it may well be the skill with which this series is written, certainly it reads as unashamedly autobiographical. Like many of us, I must admit that I am perennially fascinated by that edgy, unreliable and unrealistic division made between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ and, although Ferrante has written a number of books, it is evidently this clutch of books that has established her international reputation.
After that – in this month of February – I turned to a book that had been waiting impatiently by my bedside for the other to finish. Here, in this slim volume of Dennis Haskell’s poetry, I was sure I would find something quite different from the violence and emotion of Ferrante’s Italy, something I could linger over, read at a slower pace and enjoy for its word pictures rather than becoming involved in the lives of the characters. Right? Wrong, in this case, very wrong. In fact, for books so intrinsically different in character, the number of similarities is curious and interesting.
If I had found Ferrante’s quartet a tour-de-force, Ahead of Us is doubly so. Where I had been expecting gentleness in the place of violence, that gentleness is undoubtedly there but at the same time it is underwritten with such fury and frustration that I found in my hands a book that shuddered like an earthquake, that crunched and groaned and rattled like the freight trains in the title poem. If I had thought that in poetry I would find a change of pace, again I was wrong – where I had greedily chased the words in the first, here the pages themselves rose up to meet me. And if the pervasive enemy in the Neapolitan novels was corruption, in this collection it is destiny itself that won’t be denied.
Both these powerful books show the contradiction at the centre of human relationships – their capacity for strength, persistence and resilience that sits so unfairly alongside their fragility and ultimate transience. Yes, unfair. A word that belongs to the playground, to our inner child, they tell us, but which refuses to be silenced in times like this – that comes out as a broken ‘why?’ Why him? Why her? Why me?
Ahead of Us is Dennis Haskell’s seventh collection of poetry and a poignant tribute to his wife Rhonda. It is a book that aches with love and one that puts life – all our lives – into perspective. It has just been released by Fremantle Press ahead of its March launch and is available in all good bookshops.
Meanwhile winging towards me from Allen & Unwin in the East is Bad Behaviour, a first novel written by Rebecca Starford, co-founder and publishing director of Kill Your Darlings and my patient and perceptive editor for A Break in the Chain. Again this is a book that I’m anticipating will be quite different in terms of this year’s reading ventures. And, again, I might be wrong. But I’m pretty sure that, like the others, it will be a hypnotic experience.
Love to hear your thoughts. Happy reading and writing meanwhile.
Pic: Getty Images