Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller and chair of the British Book Awards judges, said: “From Shuggie Bain to The Thursday Murder Club, from All the Lonely People to The Danger Gang, from Hamnet to Black and British, these were the books that answered the call during this period of turmoil, debate and hope.”
Like the face of an adolescent, The Lying Life of Adults is not flawless: the last line is somewhat wan compared with the bold strokes preceding it, and a talismanic heirloom bracelet used as a plot device is clunky in parts. But Ferrante has once again written a story meeting her own criterion for narrative, in which “the facts of ordinary life – are extraordinarily gripping when read”. I devoured it greedily, in big gulps.
As The Lying Life of Adults ends, there is another departure, and the promotion of another character, a hitherto sidelined young girl who has ambitions to become a writer and who has promised – or possibly threatened – to make stories from the lives of her friends and family. It feels like the start of something else; and on the evidence of this book, there is more to tell.
The Lying Life of Adults is a novel of complexity and paranoia, all pheromones and anatomised self-absorption. Oscar Wilde wrote in A Woman of No Importance that ‘children begin by loving their parents. After a time they judge them. Rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.’ Giovanna cannot get past the second stage; I could not do the equivalent with this book.
Adolescence remains rich territory for Ferrante. Here as in her past work, she captures the interior states of young people with an unflinching psychological honesty that is striking in its vividness and depth. We share in Giovanna’s embarrassments, the tortured logic of her self-soothing, her temptations and decisions that accrete into something like experience. How easy it is, in retrospect, to have belittled those years of our lives — how much harder to recall, with the full strength of the limbic system, the feelings of privation and loss that attended our departures from childhood. Ferrante’s genius is to stay with the discomfort. With the same propulsive, episodic style she perfected in the Neapolitan quartet, she traces how it is that the consciousness of a girl at 12 becomes that of a young woman at 16.
Like a side-shoot that has taken on a life of its own, The Lying Life of Adultsshares preoccupations with Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, though the focus here is two generations down the line. Attitudes to sex have grown more permissive in some quarters, but sexuality itself remains both a darkly propelling force and a conundrum. Desire and dissatisfactions live side by side. If adolescents are particularly susceptible to both, its hold over adults is only marginally less powerful. Through the lies and truths of this compelling novel, Ferrante threads one of her talismanic objects, not a doll this time, but a mysterious glittering bracelet that, as in a fairytale, passes from hand to desirable hand.
It’s vintage Ferrante: adolescence as a scrum of self-abasement, confusion and disillusion. There’s lust, sex, religion, violence, a fixation with bodies, with beauty and ugliness and most of all disgust. Adults are “the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles”, while “our body, agitated by the life that writhes within, consuming it, does stupid things that it shouldn’t do”. The narrative is borne ahead by a propulsive unpleasantness, punctuated with exquisitely drawn-out moments of sorrow: “I slipped away, and am still slipping away, within these lines that are intended to give me a story, while in fact I am nothing, nothing of my own, nothing that has really begun or really been brought to completion…” Giovanna worries that her story is “merely a snarled confusion of suffering”; and it is.
Giannì is an unpredictable and unappealing narrator who variously describes herself as ‘a tangled knot’, an empty space, and a ‘container’ of ‘leaking granules’; but whether The Lying Life of Adults is a good novel or not is beside the point because Ferrante is a hypnotist. The opening sentence works like a swinging watch, and the reader is, for the next 300 pages, held under her spell. Ferrante achieves her mesmeric effect by numbing the reader with page after page of super-efficient and flavourless prose which push events forward like counters across a board, before throwing in a sentence of such devastating power that it gives us a heart attack.
In The Lying Lives of Adults, Giovanna’s initial shame and misery at her father’s disapproval initiate a quest to experience a kind of emotional and physical squalor. If there is a certain heavy-handedness in the symbolism of a talismanic bracelet that passes between the characters, bringing trouble to the owner of whichever wrist it encircles, Ferrante’s narrative, in Ann Goldstein’s exemplary translation, conjures with pungent eloquence the confusion, excitement and danger of the journey towards adulthood — while an ambiguous conclusion suggests that we have not have heard the last of Giovanna’s story.
The story is compulsive, but the characters are more cartoonish than in the Neapolitan Quartet; Vittoria and her ample bosom especially. The writing can be overcooked — characters break off to talk about theology — and the metaphors can teeter into absurdity: “Don Giacomo brought over an accordion, holding it in both arms as if it were a red-and-white child.” Yet if you are a Ferrante fan, you cannot help but submit to find out whether the darkness of adult deceit and family feuds gives way to Neopolitan sunshine.
So there’s another kind of redemption, lurking in the text. There’s the energy that Giovanna gets from Vittoria, as Lenù got it from Lila in the quartet. It’s the energy of the neighbourhood, the energy of a life lived foremost from the body, though this is a form of bodily vitality that’s unusually infused with psychic inventiveness and intellectual insight. “In Vittoria’s voice, or perhaps in her whole body, there was an impatience without filters that hit me in a flash.” This is a woman who manipulates everyone, who destroys her own happiness with the unpredictable violence of her desires. But even by the end, it feels possible that Giovanna was right to trust her and right to give her control in shaping the woman she will become: an energetic maker of her own world. What next, we ask at the end, as breathlessly eager for more as Giovanna herself is, plunging towards adulthood. And we have our answer in this astonishing, deeply moving tale of the sorts of wisdom, beauty and knowledge that remain as unruly as the determinedly inharmonious faces of these women.
A subplot about the shifting and often shifty ownership of a white-gold diamond-and-ruby-studded bracelet also has a 19th-century fictional feel. Like Balzac’s Paris and Dickens’s London, Ferrante’s Naples (whose upper and lower-class inhabitants even speak different languages: impeccable Italian and rough dialect) is a starkly divided metropolis. From this gorgeous and squalid two-tier city that haunts her imagination comes another compulsive novel.
The Lying Life of Adults is the most intense writing about the experiences and interior life of a girl on the cusp of adulthood that I have ever read. It is brilliant, but also demands a lot from the reader: namely that we drop everything and immerse ourselves in the dark and brutally self-loathing first-person narrative of Giovanna, born in Naples in 1979 and almost 13 when the story begins.
Ferrante charts Giovanna's passage from obliging girlhood to teenage rebellion as she rejects her parents' values in the search for her own identity. An exhilaratingly honest coming-of-age tale alive to the mercurial passions of adolescence. Moves from June.
This is the first of Ferrante’s novels I have read in the original Italian (Goldstein’s English version will be published next June). Ferrante’s own voice feels exactly like the one I already know. The rhythms of her prose are just as Goldstein reproduces them. It’s not just that her narrative strategies are familiar – the thrilling shock when a storyline swings on a trivial detail; the tremendously suggestive lacunae. The intricate sentences full of subtle shifts of tone; the brusque, forceful dialogue – all are here. So, too, is the compelling storytelling. Ferrante’s fans may be surprised by this book – by its narrow focus and its stringent tone – but they are likely to fall again under her spell.
Giovanna’s growing resilience and her discovery of one man she can put on a pedestal carries the book as it picks up speed with a flurry of denouements right to the last page. This book gives the world a new Naples heroine and a hint that another quartet of novels might be in the works, as well as showing that five years on Elena Ferrante can still deliver.