In a grey and dismal Derbyshire December how could anyone not be attracted to a novel set in sun soaked Naples? A story of the friendship between two girls, Lenu and Lila, growing up in the same overcrowded working class neighbourhood, Lenu the daughter of a porter and Lila of a shoemaker, their world is confined to the streets, shops and tenements of this packed community. Both girls are bright and imaginative and picked out by their elementary school teacher, Maestra Oliviero, to progress to the middle school and high school, but only Lenu makes it, Lila leaving school early to work in her parents’s shop. We see their friendship develop, intensify but then fall off as they develop differently: Lila is transformed from a scrawny daredevil to a beautiful young woman dripping with sex appeal and desired by every young man on the block, whereas Lenu, the book’s narrator, studies tirelessly and achieves stunning marks while tormented about her acne and ricocheting between crippling insecurity and passion for Nino Sarratore, the aloof intellectual. Besides the two main characters, the cast of not- quite- thousands provides an insight into the post war mores of Naples at that time; brothers and boyfriends are fiercely possessive and fight over their women at the drop of a hat or indeed at knife point, adult men are angry and violent and it is the norm to beat up their wife and kids. I was shocked at the ease with which threats trip off the tongue- Lenu is threatened by her father with having her legs broken if she hangs around any longer with the communist Pasquale, and this from caring parents who, albeit at times reluctantly, support Lenu in her educational endeavours. Lila is actually thrown out of a window by her father. These are parents ill educated themselves and unquestioning of authority, whether it be the authority of the Facists or the Monarchists or the Solara family who tyrannise and run the neighbourhood. And the different levels of education of the characters, where a few members of the younger generation make it to High School, is conveyed by their greater facility with the Italian language, whereas the less well educated stumble with Italian and stick to dialect. This novel ends with Lila getting married at 16 to the grocer, Stefano, while Lenu is finally aware that she has moved away from her milieu and longs to experience again the tantalising conversations she had with Nino. The next book, The Story of a New Name, takes the story on from there and two more volumes follow- a highly recommended read to beat the January blues!
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