Played false by memories

This is my review of Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante.

In this short, pacy novel of often overpowering intensity, “Troubling love” refers to the narrator Delia’s ambiguous feelings for her mother Amalia, a mixture of love and hate, brought to a head by her death by drowning, an apparent act of suicide. Delia is not only driven to find out how her mother died but also to make sense of the chain of confused, even false memories which have blighted her life. Was Amalia the innocent victim of violent abuse at the hands of a jealous husband, in a Naples where casual sexual harassment seems to be the norm, or was she responsible for provoking him with her flirtatious manner and possible adultery with his former business partner Caserta?

Apart from her unlikely career drawing comic strips, and the fact that, approaching forty, she seems to be unattached and childless, we learn little about Delia’s adult life, but she appears to be mentally unstable. Apparently traumatised by her upbringing, did some childish action on her part make matters worse and how reliable a witness is she now?

Part of the magnetic pull of the writing stems from the way in which the facts, which initially seem bizarre or dreamlike, are revealed or made clear, like the pieces of a jigsaw fitting into place. A strong sense of Naples is created: the heat, furious commotion, squalor, decay, and sea like a “violet paste”. The book has been made into a film, and I found it much easier to read once I grasped the cinematic quality of many of scenes, with their emphasis on visual detail through which deeper meaning may become apparent. For instance in a sustained incident in which various characters pursue each other through the streets of Naples and onto a funicular, there is a purely visual image of someone “as if… skating on the metallic grey of the pavement, a massive yet agile figure against the scaffold of yellow painted iron bars at the entrance to Piazza Vanvitelli”. Alighting at the “dimly lit concrete bunker” of Chiaia Station, Delia imagines or perhaps partly remembers how it was nearly forty years ago, with her mother waiting there, mesmerised by three figures advertising clothes, symbolising the freedom of another world, and wondering how she and her daughter could escape into it.

Particularly for a first novel, this is original and brilliant, but bleak. It also repelled me in its gratuitous focus on the sordid side of life: too much about the mess of menstruation, masturbation and sexual beatings. What lies behind the author’s dedication of this novel “for my mother”? Is it a mark of admiration or a reproach? A reviewer’s humorous comment, “My money is on Elena Ferrante being male, with slightly perverted sexual tastes” also strikes a chord. The brutal passion and frankness of the writing may illustrate the cultural difference between Italian and British literary fiction.

This compulsive read assaulted my senses, and left me feeling tainted.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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