The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante review – a tragic finale to a triumphant quartet

The engimatic Italian novelist brings her acclaimed Neapolitan quartet, following the lives and friendships of two Naples women, to a powerful close

Over the past year, Elena Ferrante’s fame has grown until there are probably few readers who have not read, or intend to read, her Neapolitan quartet. These novels return us to the state of total immersion in a fictional world which we often struggle to rediscover when mature.

The Story of the Lost Child is the final quarter in a whole that is about much more than the demonic friendship and rivalry between its narrator, Lenù, and Lila, whom we have followed from childhood in the slums of postwar Naples to old age in the 21st century. When the third volume (Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay) closed, Lenù was a successful young novelist who, stifled by marriage and motherhood, had left her gentle academic husband to live with her childhood love Nino, whom everyone tells her is a shit. In the first half of this volume, we discover the true depths of Nino’s treachery; Lila’s instinctive, magnetic brilliance seems to have finally found an outlet in computing, and the two women, both working mothers, both pregnant with daughters, live harmoniously in the same shabby Neapolitan house. Then, tragedy happens.

“It was as if… the joy or sorrow of one required the sorrow or joy of the other,” Lenù told us in My Brilliant Friend, “and there is no reconciliation to this paradox.” The theme of girls as interdependent or parasitic opposites is older than Little Women, the book that so impresses them as children, and goes beyond Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Through politics, feminism, private turmoil and work, the two struggle not only to define their lives but to save their neighbourhood from the corruption of the Camorristi, as embodied in the Solara brothers.

The ferocity of the characters’ emotional and intellectual lives, in which the presence of Vesuvius and the shock of an earthquake seem entirely appropriate, may seem like soap opera, but the ironies and cruelties the novel relates are all too accurate of the anni di piomboa period of sociopolitical turmoil in Italy from the late 60s to the early 80s, marked by a wave of terrorism. Lenù, the good student, tries to impose the orderliness of the professional class on chaos, but the brilliant Lila is haunted by a vision of “dissolving boundaries” in which humans appear no more than bags of meat. (Appropriately for one who loves Beckett’s plays, her first job is working in a mortadella factory, up to her waist in freezing water.)

Lila stays in the same shabby slum, but Lenù’s passions and ambitions cause her to travel between north and south, the rational and the irrational sides of Italy; she encounters and tries to absorb the deep divisions between fascist and communist, national and regional, male and female. This battle extends into the two languages the characters speak: classical Italian and a dialect that is rude, crude but often more truthful. Lila, who has had no education since primary school, grasps a third language, that of coding. However, she is without false hope, and observes that “to be born in this city… is useful for only one thing: to have always known… that this dream of unlimited progress is in reality a nightmare of savagery and death.”

The personal is political, and existential; as the communists say, la lotta continua (the struggle continues). Discordantly presented in pretty pastel jackets, the Neapolitan quartet is not just a triumph of psychological insight, social observation or storytelling magic. It is the first work worthy of the Nobel prize to have come out of Italy for many decades.

Amanda Craig’s sixth novel, Hearts and Minds, is published by Abacus (£8.99). The Story of the Lost Child is published by Europa Editions (£11.99). Click here to order it for £9.59.

Contributor

Amanda Craig

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante review – a bracing return to Naples
Two generations on from Lenù and Lila, a young girl’s reunion with an estranged aunt offers a compelling story of family, desire and betrayal

Lisa Appignanesi

30, Aug, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante review – a frighteningly insightful finale
In this last instalment, the Neapolitan series mutates into a weightier exploration of the sinister psychology of friendship

Alex Clark

03, Sep, 2015 @5:30 AM

Article image
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante review – a rebel rich girl comes of age
Italians who queued up into the night for the reclusive writer’s new tale of painful adolescence won’t be disappointed

Kathryn Bromwich

17, Nov, 2019 @9:00 AM

Article image
Ann Goldstein: 'I try to make it really clear that I am not Elena Ferrante'
The Italian author’s translator on how they work together, New York’s terrifying lockdown, and her favourite novelists

Alex Preston

12, Sep, 2020 @5:00 PM

Article image
Freya by Anthony Quinn review – Elena Ferrante-like tale of female friends
The period novelist tackles women’s changing fortunes in a story that runs from VE Day to the 60s

Anthony Cummins

28, Feb, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
They seek Elena Ferrante here... | Vanessa Thorpe
For 24 years now the bestselling writer of My Brilliant Friend and other acclaimed Neapolitan novels has evaded detection

Vanessa Thorpe

20, Mar, 2016 @12:05 AM

Article image
Ties by Domencio Starnone review – a sharply observed tale of a couple in crisis
The novel by Elena Ferrante’s huband follows a similar course to her Days of Abandonment

Anthony Cummins

26, Mar, 2017 @11:00 AM

Article image
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante review – a girl's own story
The confusions and clarity of female adolescence are explored in an astonishing novel set in Ferrante’s familiar Naples

Lara Feigel

19, Aug, 2020 @6:30 AM

Article image
Elena Ferrante: writer of the unsayable

The Italian novelist's finely-nuanced work takes her characters to the limits of what can be articulated

Joanna Walsh

12, Jun, 2014 @8:36 AM

Article image
Book clinic: which books will help to heal a broken heart?
Out of love with romance? Our expert suggests novels to analyse the processes of love, regain perspective and make you laugh

Lisa Appignanesi

07, Jul, 2018 @5:00 PM