Reading Highlights – December 2015

December already seems such a long time ago, though less than a month has passed.  It was a very interesting and somewhat unusual reading experience.  I managed to complete eight books, and again this was helped by the inclusion of three audiobooks. The total was split half and half between crime and general fiction novels. The unusual part was that three of the books were by the same author and all three were part of the same series. Below is the complete list for December.

Death is a welcome guest, by Louise Welsh – the second in her new series about a post apocalyptic Britain. Audiobook version

The Chessmen, by Peter May – the third and final book in his Lewis set trilogy. Audiobook version

The Long way home, by Louise Penny – another outing for chief inspector Gamache, the now retired former head of Homicide in Quebec.

Silent Valley, by Malla Nunn – the third in her series set in South Africa during the early years of apartheid.

Alex, by Pierre Lemaitre – the second in a trilogy featuring Parisian inspector Camille Verhoeven. Audiobook version

The Story of a new name,                                     by Elena Ferrante
Those who stay and those who leave,               the final three novels in her
The story of the lost child,                                    Neapolitan quartet

I enjoyed reading all the books, but would like to highlight the last three in Elena Ferrante’s fascinating quartet about love and friendship in Naples in the decades after the end of the 2nd World War. The first novel ends with the marriage of Lila, while only 16 years old, to Stefano Carracci, in the hope of finding a bit of glamour and wealth. The Story of a new name, set in the 1960s, is in part a chronicle of the bitter and brutal collapse of this marriage. Elena, Lila’s friend and the narrator of the novels meanwhile continues with her studies at secondary school, moves on to university in Pisa and writes at novel about young women, based on her own experiences. Those who stay and those who leave continues the contrasting stories of Elena and Lila into the 1970s. Elena is now living in Florence and married to a university don, the son of one of Italy’s most successful and admired families. She is also a successful author in her own right, but with two young children she has a very difficult time balancing her life. Her marriage begins to break down. Meanwhile Lila is still in Naples, but now it is her who is living in poverty and working in abject conditions in a sausage factory. The story of the lost child, brings us up to the near present. In the 1980s Elena is back living in Naples with the love of her life, Nino, by whom she has another child. However Nino is a thoroughly disreputable person and eventually Elena sees through him. Meanwhile Lila has found new prosperity in the computing business. She too has another child. All seems to be going well, but as the title of this fourth book suggests, tragedy is not far away. The rest of the novel is in part about how the two women try to come to terms with this tragedy.

The above is the barest of outlines of the novels, but does little to convey the intricacies and complexities of the emotional roller coaster that the two women go through. The other characters are well drawn and plentiful. What is remarkable about the series is that during this period Italy went through a series of dramatic and often violent changes, which at one point looked likely to bring down the whole political system. These events occasionally come to the fore in the novels, but never to the forefront. They hover in the background and of course Italian readers will be more familiar with the chronology of these events. The novels though are much more focussed on the internal struggles of Elena and Lila as the face up to the daily grind of poverty and crime that is their lives in Naples. Both try different routes to escape from this corrupting and often violent life, with varying degrees of success and failure.

Neither of the two women are blemish free characters. Both have as many weakness and unlovely features as strengths and goodness. Elena Ferrante has given us a warts and all portrayal of two fascinating and impressive women and at the same time a glimpse into the vibrant, colourful, violent and crime ridden world of post war Naples and Italy.

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