If, like me, you’ve fallen hard for Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and the idea of waiting another three months for the final instalment is unbearable, Troubling Love is the perfect fix to tide you over. Or perhaps you’ve yet to be introduced to Ferrante; in which case I’m massively jealous because you have the biggest treat in store for you! Stop wasting your time reading this review and pick up My Brilliant Friend asap. And you might as well order Books II and III while you’re at it, because you’re not going to be able to stop reading…
As you can tell, I was already a big cheerleader for Ferrante before I picked up Troubling Love, her first novel, and this debut has only cemented my fangirl love. It’s shorter than her Neapolitan books and, if anything, even more tightly woven and accomplished. In this book Ferrante concentrates on the mother-daughter relationship, one of the themes I found particularly compelling in My Brilliant Friend. The narrator Delia’s troubled relationship with her mother Amalia, found drowned under mysterious circumstances, is explored with dizzying intensity. As with all of Ferrante’s writing, the prose is tightly restrained (not a superfluous adjective or sentence) yet the narrative it contains is frenetic, sweeping the reader through the chaotic pathways of Delia’s memories and associations. As the boundaries between reality and dream, memory and hallucination, are torn away, we’re forced to participate in Delia’s increasing distress and confusion.
The book takes us through the muggy, dirty, intimidating streets of Naples and at the same time through the pathways of Delia’s imagination, the landscape of her recollected childhood just as dangerous as the reality outside. At some points in the novel, the two blur completely and the reader can’t be sure what is actually happening in the ‘real world’ and what Delia is imagining; Amalia’s suit comes to life, the mother’s passport suddenly depicts the daughter’s face. Naples isn’t just a city of external hostilities but also a site where one’s very identity is threatened; “For a moment I thought with horror of males and females as living organisms, and I imagined the work of a burin polishing us like ivory, reducing us until we were without holes and without excrescences, all identical and without identity, with no play of somatic features, no weighing of small differences.”
The book is full of sexual aggression and the familiar misogyny that Ferrante explores as an integral part of Neapolitan life. From Amalia’s husband, who saves his most brutal lashings for his wife rather than her lover, to the predatory stares of the men on the streets, the threat of male violence is ever present. On the tram, men paste themselves to women “like flies to the sticky yellowish paper that hung in butcher shops or, loaded with dead insects, dangled over the counters of the salumieri.” More unusually, this book ties sex up with old age; not just in white-haired Caserta pressing himself against the young woman on the tram but also in the language and actions of Delia and her mother. Delia herself isn’t young any more, her tight dress provoking public disapproval and the humiliating sexual encounter between her and Antonio described in indiscriminate detail; Delia’s grossly sweating body is as repulsive as anything else in the book. As with her protagonist Elena in the Neapolitan novels, we are given unrestricted access to every thought, physical movement and action of our heroine. And it’s not always sympathetic or pretty.
Delia’s conflicted emotions towards Amalia are expressed most strongly through both her disgust and her reluctant admiration of her sexuality – of the ripped underwear Amalia has squeezed her aged body into, of her thick dark hair that both repulses and attracts. Delia desires to experience the same sensations that her mother had as a young wife, and was still enjoying as an old woman. She can’t decide whether she wants to become her mother (“I intended to make a hole in my finger, too, to make her see that it was risky to deny me what I didn’t have”) or violently reject her. In a recent rare interview in The Paris Review, Ferrante explains her struggle to pin down Amalia’s character and reconcile her with Delia, with whom she explicitly identifies: “I nourished Delia, the protagonist, on [my] memories. The figure of the mother, Amalia, on the other hand, appeared and immediately withdrew—she almost wasn’t there. If I imagined Delia’s body so much as brushing against her mother’s, I felt ashamed and moved on to something else.”
Yet Amalia overflows every page, infecting Delia’s thoughts and gestures, the physical appearance she cultivates, everything she sees around her. Even in childhood “Amalia’s body couldn’t be contained. Her hips spread across the aisle towards the hips of the men on either side of her; her legs, her stomach swelled toward the knee or shoulder of whoever was sitting in front of her.” For Delia, Naples is Amalia, the outlines of the two dissolving into one another:
“I felt the city coming apart in the heat, in the dusty gray light, and I went over in my mind the story of childhood and adolescence that impelled me to wander along the Veterinaria to the Botanic Gardens, or over the cobbles of the market of Sant’Antonio Abate, which was always damp and strewn with rotting vegetables. I had the impression that my mother was carrying off the places, too, and the names of the streets.”
This book gives us access to a dark, angry uncompromising landscape, a place that hovers somewhere between the real-life poverty and aggression of Delia’s childhood Naples, and her claustrophobic, unstable interpretation of that world now. It’s not exactly a pleasant read but it is entirely absorbing and compelling, and it shouldn’t be missed.