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) 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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My Mother Is A River – Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson)

In the last week I have been reading a number of posts from Open Letter books about the politics of the publishing world, more specifically the recent decision to not give Open Letter the U.S. publishing rights for Mathias Enard’s latest novel as the Publishing Agency wants the “right publishing house” for a work “that’s this important”. Seeing the grievances (from Open Letter’s point of view) makes you wonder why anybody would want to set up a publishing house in the first place. Which leads me to my latest review, a strangely titled work “My Mother Is A River” by Donatella Di Pietrantonio (translated by Franca Scurti Simpson).
The novel is the first release by a new UK based published Calisi Press. They concentrate on the publication of contemporary works by Italian women writers. A niche market, however as we know the lack of female representation in translated works is an ongoing issue, so for a new publisher to come along and solely concentrate on women writers is an event to be celebrated in itself.
“My Mother Is A River” is Donatella Di Pietrantonio’s first novel (original title “Mia madre è un fiume”) and was originally published in 2011, winning the Tropea and John Fante literary prizes, Already translated into German the novel is scheduled for release in English next month by Calisi Press. Di Pietrantonio’s second novel “Bella Mia” was published in 2014 and won the Brancati Prize.
This novel is a story of fractured memories, following the tale of a daughter (our narrator) looking after her dementia impacted mother and recalling their relationship. Written in first, second and third person and clinical, factual and at times scattered, the tale of the mother’s early life is recreated by our narrator’s thoughts of her mother, or retelling of stories once told to her:
I am incapable of showing her kindness. I never touch her. I can only imagine being able to caress her, her arms, the hands deformed by arthritis, her cheeks, her head. Her hair’s started to thin out too, as if the withering at work inside her skull were infecting its very roots. It’s like cancer in reverse, it shrivels instead of spreading out. She seems too young for this, she isn’t ready. We are not ready.
I don’t try to get closer, if I do it feels like the opposing force when you push together the matching poles of two magnets.
I’ve never put her behind me. I’ve never forgiven her anything. I was still planning to settle my score with her when she escaped from me into her illness. I quivered with indignation, as if she’d done so to spite me. Or I suspected I’d been the one to push her into it.
I’ve tried with my partner’s mother, fifteen years older and infirm. I bathed her. While we were helping her into the bath, she defecated on its edge. I cleaned up. I soaped her skin, lifting her flaccid breasts to wash the skin folds, where the skin rots and reddens with sweat. Several times, when wiping her anus, the sponge came away foul smelling and streaked with shit. After washing her frizzy, stringy hair, I applied conditioner and then untangled it with a wide-tooth comb. Every now and then she’d slide into the water and I’d pull her up by her armpits. I rinsed her, then Pietro and I got her out of the bath and helped her onto a chair. I rubbed moisturiser on her legs and arms, always so dry. A rivulet of gratitude dribbled from her mouth.
It only tired me a little. I didn’t find it the least bit difficult. She is not my mother.
Through the story telling we learn of our narrator and her mother’s simple country upbringing in Abruzzi, the ritual yearly pig slaughter, the local dances and the practice of choosing a dance partner. We also learn of her mother’s wedding, the extravagance even though they are from a struggling rural community. Her mother’s love of crochet, a task that is now beyond her. But we also learn of the guilt of not loving and spending time together when she could  and now being resentful and not loving because she simply cannot.
Her father is also frustrated at the decline in his wife, her mental shutdown, however he is a bit player in the novel, with the single voice of our narrator, exploring her relationship, fears, time with her mother:
I tell him off, I keep telling him she doesn’t do it on purpose, it’s a sickness. As I utter the words I hope they’ll persuade me. If she had cancer or diabetes we wouldn’t be so unkind to her. We can’t forgive her for having lost control of herself, of us.
The clinical and honest opening up of our narrator, brings the reality of being a carer for a person who is suffering mental loss, whether through Alzheimer’s or any form of dementia, and the pressures and fears that this journey puts on the individuals. We even have questioning of our narrator’s own sanity, what if this decline is genetic?
However bleak the outlook is for our narrator, we also have touching moments of tenderness blended with memories of easier, simpler times. For example we learn of her father’s yearly trip to Germany to work and earn enough money to keep the small farm going, whilst her mother worked the farm, or the brief periods where the women go and work in vineyards picking grapes.
Her memory is now a manuscript traced with invisible ink; I leaf through it page by page and hold it to the flame to reveal its secret.
A touching tale of mental collapse, a story that uses many linguistic styles to create a history but at the same time a sadness of having to live with a relative’s slow decay.
Welcome to the world of publishing to Calisi Press, and you can find out more about their upcoming works at their website I wish them well in the brutal political publishing environment.
To read more about the Open Letter issue I raised at the start of this review, read Chad Post’s blog entry here

Source of “My Mother is a River” a review copy courtesy of Calisi Press.

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