The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante (translated by Anne Goldstein) – Man Booker International Prize 2016 and Best Translated Book Award 2016

Today I’m looking at a book that has made both the Man Booker International Prize shortlist and the Best Translated Book Award shortlist for 2016, a novel I read on its release back in September 2015, Elena Ferrante’s “The Story Of The Lost Child” (translated by Ann Goldstein).
I am going to imagine a situation, I am a reader, I want to try something from a well-known prize shortlist, I want something by a female writer, something European, Ferrante it is (I could choose “Murder Most Serene” by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie, but that’s highly unlikely, Ferrante is the only qualifier under the “female, European” criteria on both lists, Wittkop not being eligible for the Man Booker and therefore not on the list). I am surprised, the local bookshop has quite a few copies, must be a good book, I’m not even going to read the back cover, it may influence my purchasing decision, that’s it, mind is made up, cash changes hands, I’m now the proud owner of a “literary” work from Italy. Can’t wait to snuggle down and read it…
I seem to recall somebody at the book club mentioning this anonymous Italian writer, something about “Ferrante Fever”. Being a strong anti-vaccine activist, I haven’t received my inoculations to stop the malaise hitting me, but with a pretty solid immune system I’m very confident that although some symptoms may appear, I will not succumb to a full blown fever, I’ve read four volumes (and am about to start a fifth) of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s personal struggle, if that didn’t give me night sweats and fatigue I’m fairly confident a publicity shy Italian will carry no germs.
The first pages have an “Index of Characters”, we start off with the “Cerullo family (the shoemaker’s family), Raffaella Cerullo, called Lina, or Lila. She was born in August 1944, and is sixty-six when she disappears from Naples without a trace. At the age of sixteen, she married Stefano Carracci, but during a vacation on Ischia she falls in love with Nino Sarratore, for whom she leaves her husband. After the disastrous end of her relationship with Nino, the birth of her son Gennaro (also called Rino), and the discovery that Stefano is expecting a child with Ada Cappuccio, Lila leaves him definitively. She moves with Enzo Scanno to San Giovanni a Teduccio, but several years later she returns to the neighbourhood with Enzo and Gennaro.”
WHAT? “The neighbourhood”? What neighbourhood? Who are these people? She disappears without a trace? When? If so why is she in this book? Who is Enzo?
Damn this list of people, I’m going to start reading it.
Okay, the first page and a half we have Lila, Nino, Dede and Elsa (the sentence introducing them reads “In reality, what mattered more than that offense was the mention of Dede and Elsa.”), Marcello Solara, Gennaro, Stefano and then it spirals a few more pages with some bloke called Pietro turning up.
I better go back to the list of characters….no joy…back to the book.
Nino goes to Naples, Lena to Florence, but who is Adele in Milan?
Let’s face it the foundations, the very core has been laid in the previous three works, well and truly before you even open this book.
Yes, of course, it is a measured opening here, it is slowly reintroducing us to the people, reminding us of the affair Lena is having, re-establishing the various cities and their significance and of course we need to be reminded of the influence that Lila plays over Lena’s life.
But in my opinion, the whole scenario is bizarre – how can this book be up for these awards? The book, to a new reader, makes no sense, who are these people? Maybe the back cover would help you out, give you an idea of what is going on….WHAT, it is just reviews?? Ohhh it’s on the front cover “The Fourth and Final Neapolitan Novel”? Why didn’t anybody tell me? 
I know I would probably be living in a cave not to know this is part of a series, but I’m trying to make a point okay?!?
I know this rambling is not really a review of Ferrante’s latest per se, however what is the point of adding yet another view to the plethora of opinions that are out in cyberspace? It wouldn’t count for much at all, if anything. This rant is merely my opinion as to the merits of this work winning either the Man Booker International Prize or the Best Translated Book Award. Neither of these prizes is given for a body of work (although the Man Booker International Prize was for a body of work, not a specific book, prior to this year, it is no longer the case). As a standalone novel I was seriously disappointed that it made either list, let alone both. Is this on these lists as a consolation for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize ignoring the first three instalments? Or the Best Translated Book Award feeling guilty that the opener in the series “My Brilliant Friend” was completely overlooked and the following two, although being shortlisted, were beaten by László Krasznahorkai (“Seiobo There Below”) and Can Xu (“The Last Lover”)?
Let’s face it, book number four is going to be bought by people who have read numbers 1-3, number four is going to be liked by people who have already read 1,200 pages about Lena and Lila, it’s a conclusion, people like closure, they’ll feel as though they’ve lost a friend but they’ve gained an experience.
Let’s have a look at the Goodreads reviews of the Ferrante fever:
“My Brilliant Friend” – average 3.9 from 35,557 ratings (30% are 5 star)
“The Story of a New Name” – average 4.4 from 15,305 ratings (52% are 5 star)
“Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” – average 4.32 from 11,401 ratings (48% are 5 star)
“The Story of the Lost Child” – average 4.42 from 9,149 ratings (56% are 5 star)
Number of ratings decreasing, as you would expect whilst people make their way through the books, and of course there will always be people who drop off the bandwagon along the way, but the ratings themselves are increasing the further people get into the works. Another interesting point is the lowest average scores come for the first novel, a work people may have tried and decided to go no further, only adding fuel to the fire that a score will increase the further you travel along the series journey, only diehards are going to read 1,600 pages.
Personally I did not enjoy the third in the series anywhere near as much as the first two (my review here reflected that) http://messybooker.blogspot.com.au/2014/12/those-who-leave-and-those-who-stay.htmland this feeling carried over to “The Story of The Lost Child”, although I did think it was much stronger than “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay”. Having struggled with writing a review for this book when the reading public has the fever, with four books all in the best seller lists, I’ve resigned myself to just presenting my view that as a standalone novel this book should not be on the award shortlists. You watch it win both.

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5 thoughts on “The Story of the Lost Child – Elena Ferrante (translated by Anne Goldstein) – Man Booker International Prize 2016 and Best Translated Book Award 2016

  1. It's interesting that when Ferrante Fever began, I had tried several times to read My Brilliant Friend and not been able to get much past page 20.

    I persevered, and am glad I did, for I found the books particularly meaningful from a female perspective. I can't quite define why many men who read it also are caught up, because what I relate to in the novel is the relationship between these two women. The manipulations, the competition, the envy and jealousies do not make them seem very friend like to me.

    As for your point of being in the list of awards, that is a thorny branch. On one hand, I find exquisite writing which brings both Naples and characters to life. On the other, it absolutely cannot stand alone. And a person who might buy the fourth book without reading the first three, as you describe in your post, is not only going to be lost. They will miss far too much of what has gone on before.

    Still, The Iraqi Christ will always be my most hated prize winner. I can't imagine disliking s book more than I do that one, or wishing that anything, anything else at all, had won the IFFP that year.

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  2. Thanks Bellezza for stopping by. I did enjoy the friendship, manipulation, jealousy elements of the first two book, I feel the third became too wrapped up in Naples politics and the women were not really at all “friends” throughout and in the last this theme continued to an extent (not as much the politics though). I don't know if that's a male thing or not! Personally I think the last two books could have been completed in one!!! There is only so much “I've left my husband and kids” you can write about, and this whole theme became overwrought for me. I'm not a “hater” of this book, it is well written, I'm not a huge fan though, feeling the series peaked at book 2. The post was really to put my view out there that it shouldn't win those awards. Got you “hook, line and sinker” with the “Iraqi Christ” tweet too.

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  3. Indeed you did! I'm not on Twitter often, obviously, so it's good you tagged me. And boy, do I (still) get riled up over The Iraqi Christ!

    I know very much what you mean when you say there is only so much “I'm going to leave my family” you can write about, or rather read. And the theme would have tired me more quickly had I read all four books in a row, without the benefit of a year or so in between.

    My conclusion after the fourth, which surprises me, is that they are equally to blame for the pain they suffered at each other's hand. I feel that Ferrante wanted to blame the one who lost her child (why do their names still confuse me?) more, but that would not be fair. To me, they are still a fascinating series, even if they need to be recognized as a group not alone.

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  4. I thought My Brilliant Friend was a wonderful book, though I admit it's tough to sustain that over four volumes and things dipped during volume three. However, I don't buy the argument that it shouldn't win because it's part of a series. Pat Barker won the Booker with the final volume of her Regeneration trilogy, so it's not without precedent. I think you're right, you do require to read the other volumes, but then I believe Ferrante wanted to publish as one book.
    The same argument could be used with Death by Water, the understanding of which is much reduced if you're not acquainted with Oe's work.

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  5. Thanks for stopping by Grant, I agree the first two are wonderful books, maybe I hadn't made that clear, or maybe I'm misreading your opening comment. On Pat Barker's Booker win, I have to say that book made little sense if you had not read the others, personally I thought it was an undeserved winner. Looks like we agree to disagree Oe's work being fine as a stand alone but enriched if you know more of his work. I also don't say it shouldn't win because it is part of a series, I say it shouldn't win because it makes no sense as a stand alone book. A novel that forms part of a series may well be a stand alone gem. In fact I read “The Story Of A New Name” before “My Brilliant Friend” and it was understandable and enjoyable. As a fellow member of the Shadow Jury you will know what I rated this work & the criteria we use doesn't lean us to low ratings because it's part of a series, I just feel strongly enough to put a differing view out there. Could have written a “Ferrante Fever” review & nobody would have been surprised.

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