The Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s first children’s book, translated beautifully and uncompromisingly by Ann Goldstein, is a dark tale with a complex girl-doll heroine and a malevolent male baddie for brave little readers.
It’s narrated in the first person by Celina, the favourite talking doll of Mati, a five-year-old girl — referencing the doll belonging to Elena that her “brilliant friend” Lila drops through a grate at the start of the Neapolitan Quartet.
Here Celina is on a beach. She has been upstaged in her “mother” Mati’s affections by Minù the cat, a present from her father.
In the heat of the day and the excitement of the new, the little girl leaves Celina behind, half-buried in the hot sand. So begins the doll’s odyssey as the sun sets: “The Beach Attendant arrives. His eyes, I don’t like his eyes. He folds up the big beach umbrellas, the chaises, I see the two halves of his moustache moving over his lip like lizards’ tails.”
If that’s not bad enough, he has a Big Rake for a friend and sings menacingly: “Open your maw/ I’ve shit for your craw/ Drink up the pee/ Drink it for me.”
Charlie and Lola this ain’t.
The Mean Beach Attendant of Sunset finds Celina and plans to pull out her words with his Hook (hello, nursery feminism! Or is it a nod to the author’s supposed “outing”?) and sell her on the market. He makes do with her name and lights a fire on the beach that melts her fellow victim, plastic Pony.
Yet before Celina burns, the Wave comes and she is saved — but also pulled underwater, a pyrrhic victory until the soft mouth of the Dark Animal picks her up.
It is her nemesis, Minù, who will return her to Mati — and Ferrante delivers what is surely her first truly happy ending.
Mara Cerri’s illustrations are weird and wonderful and my gang, 12, 9 and 3, were all hooked by this peculiar tale of loss and rediscovery. Classic Elena for beginners and their Ferrante-fevered parents.
The Beach at Night (5+) by Elena Ferrante, translated Ann Goldstein, illustrated by Mara Cerri, Europa editions, 40pp, £9.99