January was a month of waiting for our family and what do I do when I’m waiting? I read, and then I read some more. And, this time around, because of the nature of the waiting, I knitted. And I walked and exercised and I got a few posts sorted in advance—that’s a first. Now, the waiting is done (our gorgeously, wonderful grandson arrived towards the end of the month) and life is settling back to a new normal. A new normal which, experience tells me, is likely easier on the grandparents than the parents!
My mind is returning to the world of books. I’m still not reading so much, there’s a bit of knitting going on. Blame my sister for that! She’s exhorted me to keep those needles clicking. She said: Baby’s grow and they grow fast. If you don’t get cracking, you won’t keep up!
Nevertheless, as I’ve followed the pattern and mused about the world my grandson will inherit, about where his life might take him, I’ve also mulled over the books I read during January. Mostly I’ve wondered how on earth I would choose just the one book for this feature.
There were two top contenders: A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, a companion novel to Life After Life which I read a year or two ago, and The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, the fourth and last of the Neapolitan series. (You can read my reaction to the first in the series here.)
Both books kept me engaged, both kept me thinking and reflecting. In the end, it came down to the endings.
In some ways both are unsatisfyingly rewarding. Ferrante leaves things dangling, questions remain unresolved. And as for Atkinson’s work, it’s admirably clever, and the more I think about it the more I see the clues to the ending and the more clever I think it is. Others have thought so, too. A God in Ruins won the 2015 Costa Novel award. I’ve found few negative reviews.
But a novel relies on a reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. It was this that Atkinson played with. And, although I can’t help but admire Atkinson’s bravery, intellect and talent, the ending left me feeling duped and disappointed. I wonder if other readers felt the same way. Don’t let this put you off reading it, it is, nevertheless, a very good book.
In contrast, although The Story of the Lost Child closed with many, many loose ends, I turned off my Kindle with an immense sense of satisfaction.
Sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, volume by volume, the themes of friendship, betrayal, motherhood, corruption, and politics, are layered one upon the other, creating a whole that is richly textured and intellectually rewarding.
The nature of the novel, the boundaries, or lack of them, between truth and fiction are frequent themes.
Elena, the narrator, has recently published a successful novel, one set in her neighbourhood, one where her friends, family and associates are readily identifiable. She defends her novel to her lifelong friend, Lila:
“I didn’t narrate real events.”
“I recall that you did.”
I looked at her uncertainly. “What do you mean?”
“You didn’t use the names, but a lot of things were recognizable.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I told you I didn’t like the book. Things are told or not told: you remained in the middle.”
“It was a novel.”
“Partly a novel, partly not.”
Lila is not the sort of woman to play along. She challenges, criticises, confronts. This is a friendship, like many, perhaps, except we’re usually too polite to say, sustained by the struggle for power. In the end it is Elena who has the last word, or does she?
“I intended to capture her, to have her beside me again …
Both books explore and test the form of the novel. Atkinson, by manipulting literary devices, directly challenges our expectations of fiction.
In the Neopolitan Series Ferrante does the same, but with more subtlety. Where exactly is the line between fiction and lived experience in this series. What do we make of the name of her narrator? A character she has invested with her own name? Perhaps Lila was exposing not only the character but the author herself when she said: “Partly a novel, partly not.”
Each of these books has a lot to say, each offers a lot to the reader. Atkinson and Ferrante are writers at the very top of their craft. I recommend both books but in the end, The Story of the Lost Child is my book of the month.
Have you read either? Tell me, what did you think of them?
Categories: On Books