The Story of a New Name is the second book of the Neapolitan Novels. It’s raw and brilliant, with a light that shines unblinking on its characters
Naples has always hung its washing to catch the air – it’s a city that knows its secrets … and so does Elena Ferrante. In her novels she packs the unhidden into private lives and passes it on to us.
The novel follows Lila, Elena and their peers through courtship, abuse, marriage, summers and work, and we see them now from two angles … from the thick of their lives in Naples, and from the refined distance of academia and college in Pisa.
On the one hand Elena brings her Naples, her life, directly to the table whilst in the other she elevates herself to where we might like to think we sit … apart, better. Through her we circle the story as she shows us those forced to live with the unbearable while she strives through learning to achieve a purer life.
This might suggest a clear cut support for one side over the other but Elena Ferrante never goes this way. Instead she gives us empathy and a sense of loss with writing so strong that it’s impossible to choose sides or to know what is next. We are made to see brutal truths, to look deep inside friendships and to question ourselves. We are made to understand by storytelling so clean and so passionate that we are drawn in as witnesses rather than left as readers.
The two characters that attract the spotlight are Elena and Lila, but there is another that never leaves the pages: Naples.
There are no long physical descriptions of the city instead we are taken straight to its heart, to its crowded core, and shown why it beats like it does. We see courage, pain, brilliance, ignorance, love and corruption as they entwine in the struggle for the heights of Vomero or the wealthy life of Chiaia.
This is how Naples today still feels – restless, watchful, intense and alive.
Perhaps you are undecided as to whether or not to read these Neapolitan novels … if so, to end here are three reasons that I hope will persuade you: first – there is the pleasure of the writing and the power of the tale; second – there is the chance to be led right inside the heart of Naples; and third – there is provocation, the kind that makes you think, such as this for instance from near the end of the novel (page 466):
“…she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”
Book four in the series, The Story of the Lost Child, has just been published.