The Lying Life of Adults

Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein

 
The Lying Life of Adults
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The Lying Life of Adults

Elena Ferrante, Ann Goldstein

A powerful new novel set in a divided Naples by Elena Ferrante, the beloved best-selling author of My Brilliant Friend.

‘Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly. The sentence was uttered under his breath, in the apartment that my parents, newly married, had bought in Rione Alto, at the top of Via San Giacomo dei Capri. Everything - the spaces of Naples, the blue light of a very cold February, those words - remained fixed. But 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.’

Giovanna’s pretty face has changed: it’s turning into the face of an ugly, spiteful adolescent. But is she seeing things as they really are? Into which mirror must she look to find herself and save herself?

She is searching for a new face in two kindred cities that fear and detest one another: the Naples of the heights, which assumes a mask of refinement, and the Naples of the depths, which professes to be a place of excess and vulgarity. She moves between these two cities, disoriented by the fact that, whether high or low, the city seems to offer no answer and no escape.

Review

Last year, when I heard that a new Elena Ferrante novel was imminent, I experienced palpable waves of excitement through my body. That’s the kind of writer Ferrante is – she inspires feverish devotion. Like many of my colleagues, I worship her Neapolitan Novels, the quartet set in postwar Naples centred on brilliant friends Lenù (also known as Elena) and Lila. It secured Ferrante’s place as one of the most perceptive writers of women’s psyches, and especially of the highly flammable territory of adolescence. Her first novel in five years, The Lying Life of Adults (with translation again by Ann Goldstein), justifies this belief.

With The Lying Life of Adults, Ferrante returns to the city she knows best. But rather than the impoverished neighbourhood of the quartet, here we start up high, in the Vomero, among the educated middle classes in the early 1990s. Giovanna – shy and twelve when we meet her, provocative at sixteen when we depart – has her world unstitched when she overhears her parents compare her to her estranged Aunt Vittoria. Disillusioned, Giovanna descends into the other Naples – poorer, coarser, and more explosive – seeking the truth about her aunt and a mirror in which she might see herself more clearly.

The Lying Life of Adults reads like a raw confession. Ferrante excavates her protagonist’s turbulent inner life with unvarnished prose. Amidst routine adolescent pains, Giovanna also learns that everybody lies, and takes pleasure in the lies she tells; in their power to transform and punish. Ferrante portrays Giovanna’s changing body and mind with a ferocious volatility – her feelings of indignation and shame are rendered so intensely they are practically stifling.

The question persists: how much of Ferrante’s writing is autobiographical? Is The Lying Life of Adults a portrait of the artist as a young rebel or a work of pure imagination? Ferrante sees writing as the communication of truth, but also perhaps the definitive deception. Lies are stories; they give Giovanna’s life shape and order. That’s an intriguing conundrum. The Lying Life of Adults is a book I will return to again and again. It’s a vivid, volcanic masterpiece.


Joanna Di Mattia works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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