Elena Ferrante is so good on the bodily feelings of female adolescence: the sweaty, clotted skin, the sudden bulges as breasts form, the awkwardly exciting transformations. She is good, also, on the way that childhood friendships change, becoming infused with desire and longing. Her characters startle themselves with their readiness to betray their friends for the newly discovered opposite sex, but they startle themselves too when they jettison their heavy, often rather insulting male suitors and return to their nimbler companions.
Her latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, is set over the protracted years of adolescence, from 12 to 17. The confusion of bodily change provides a murky backdrop for the lucid mental clarity this period of life can bring. These are years when you are an outsider to yourself, unable fully to recognise the person you are becoming, and an outsider to the once familiar figures who surround you. So it’s not surprising that these are often the years when the novelist is born. In this case, Giovanna becomes a novelist through observing the lies of adults , and through learning to tell her own.
Giovanna has grown up in Naples, the familiar territory of Ferrante’s quartet. She lives high in the rarefied boulevards of the upper city, but has grown up knowing that there’s another city down below, where her father spent his childhood and his family still live. “To visit them you had to go down, and down, keep going down, into the depths of the depths of Naples.” She is the beloved daughter of two teacher parents, nurtured by the admiration of a father whose violence she nonetheless fears, because periodically he mashes up “sophisticated arguments and uncontrolled emotions”.
As the story opens, her parents are disappointed with her lack of progress at school. Giovanna overhears her father complaining that “she’s getting the face of Vittoria”. For Giovanna this constitutes a fall from grace: she has been beautiful but now she becomes ugly. Vittoria is her father’s sister, long banished to the depths, “a childhood bogey-man, a lean, demonic silhouette, an unkempt figure lurking in the corners of houses when darkness falls”. In Ferrante novels the fairytale is never far from the social realism, and here Giovanna is plunged into a dark quest to discover Vittoria and learn how her evil aunt has invaded her body. There’s even a glittering fairytale bracelet, passed between the characters without being fully understood by any of them.
For Ferrante’s loyal readers there’s a pleasure in connecting this bogeyman to the luridly frightening Don Achille in My Brilliant Friend, in connecting Vittoria’s dangerous intelligence with Lila’s, and comparing the symbolic bracelet to the silver bracelet that Lenù breaks there. What’s remarkable is that the book manages to be all the more new and surprising for being layered with familiar Ferrante places and themes. It combines the slow-motion intensity of The Lost Daughter with the addictive momentum of the quartet, rendered in perfectly weighted prose by Ann Goldstein. As with Hardy’s Wessex or DH Lawrence’s Eastwood, the setting, by becoming so familiar, becomes a shared space between reader and writer. It feels as though Ferrante is playing with her fame, inviting us back into the poorer neighbourhoods of Naples that at the start of the book are more familiar to us than they are to Giovanna.
Giovanna persuades her parents to arrange a meeting for her with Vittoria and confronts the depths of the city that have been waiting to claim her. What follows is a fast-woven web of deception. At first Giovanna believes that she’s the one telling lies. She lies to her parents, telling them that she was bored by Vittoria, while secretly arranging more meetings. She lies to Vittoria, wanting the pleasure of telling revealing stories about her parents. “I ended up looking for small real anomalies and inflating them slightly. But even then I was uneasy. I wasn’t a truly affectionate daughter and I wasn’t a truly loyal spy.”
Here Giovanna is practising the disloyalty that will make her a writer, and that may leave her unhomed for ever. She loses her balance when her family breaks apart following the revelation of a long affair, and discovers that the adults she is learning to deceive have been lying to each other all along. “The truth is difficult, growing up you’ll understand that,” she’s told, when she points this out. “Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many,” the narrator observes.
Who is this narrator? As in the quartet, we’re aware that we are in the hands of an adult version of the character we’re encountering in adolescence – we’re meeting a woman who has now become a novelist and gained control of the lies herself. “Today I think it was thanks to this obsessive brooding that I slowly managed to remove myself from my parents’ suffering,” she writes. But we never learn what kind of escape this has been or how tarnished she remains by these experiences. If fiction is a form of lying then it’s a more generous one, framed by a mutual understanding of what’s going on between reader and writer. The question of whether she has managed this transformation is raised on the opening page, where she writes: “I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion: only a tangled knot, and nobody, not even the one who at this moment is writing, knows if it contains the right thread for a story, or is merely a snarled confusion of suffering, without redemption.”
It’s a moving image, the tangled knot as a snarled confusion. And it brings up the question of redemption, which itself threads through the story and is sometimes raised in explicitly Biblical terms. It’s clear that Giovanna’s father hoped to escape suffering through his ascent to the upper city but has failed to do so: wealth and education aren’t enough. Giovanna herself seeks to escape her own suffering through her descent back down into the neighbourhood. It almost feels as if this is going to work when she encounters Roberto, a talented young academic found in the unlikely setting of Vittoria’s church. Giovanna falls in love immediately with Roberto and starts to read the Bible, hoping to share in his light. Roberto restores to Giovanna her love of reading. She reads now to impress him, and then finds that in reading she can gain power and mastery over the befuddled adults.
Roberto is beautiful and tells Giovanna she’s beautiful: in a novel where the concept of beauty is super-charged, this is a promise of redemption. But in many ways, Roberto is the most depressing figure in the book, because when he’s not a fairytale prince, he’s a working-class man made good who may be about to ruin the lives of several women in a manner not dissimilar from Giovanna’s father. Her father has made her ugly; Roberto has made her beautiful; a question in the novel is surely whether Giovanna can escape these men with their insistence on female beauty and female goodness, and develop an authority of her own.
So there’s another kind of redemption, lurking in the text. There’s the energy that Giovanna gets from Vittoria, as Lenù got it from Lila in the quartet. It’s the energy of the neighbourhood, the energy of a life lived foremost from the body, though this is a form of bodily vitality that’s unusually infused with psychic inventiveness and intellectual insight. “In Vittoria’s voice, or perhaps in her whole body, there was an impatience without filters that hit me in a flash.” This is a woman who manipulates everyone, who destroys her own happiness with the unpredictable violence of her desires. But even by the end, it feels possible that Giovanna was right to trust her and right to give her control in shaping the woman she will become: an energetic maker of her own world. What next, we ask at the end, as breathlessly eager for more as Giovanna herself is, plunging towards adulthood. And we have our answer in this astonishing, deeply moving tale of the sorts of wisdom, beauty and knowledge that remain as unruly as the determinedly inharmonious faces of these women.
• Lara Feigel is the author of The Group (John Murray). The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, is published by Europa (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.