This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series, is by Betty Scott from Books & Whatnot. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (Italy, Europa Editions)
Frankly, any one of the novels in the Neapolitan Quartet should take the prize in almost any conceivable matchup (except cover design—but trust the famous aphorism). Each maintains an impossible tension through a pretty significant number of pages, all of which seem entirely necessary. Each of them contains a breadth and depth of character to a degree that’s both uncommon and uncommonly well executed. Each adds a layer to the rich relationship established in My Brilliant Friend while mapping the cracks in its foundation, but it’s not until The Story of the Lost Child, the stinging coda, that a reader can truly understand that Ferrante isn’t just putting a life between these covers but life itself.
Birth. Death. Marriage. Divorce. Bigamy. That’s just a start. Classism. The labor movement. Feminism. Autochthony. That’s still not the half. While all of these subjects appear in the Neapolitan novels, they’re also questioned. Do they matter? Maybe. How do we know what matters? Who knows. Who knows anything?
Starting with the first novel, Ferrante’s style mimics thought and conversational speech, and while much of it is grammatically incorrect, it’s not ignorance on her part or Goldstein’s error but a deliberate choice. When Ferrante questions language, learning, and communication itself, it becomes clear that the wandering sentences and meandering paragraphs are no accident. The Story of the Lost Child establishes that this is for a purpose and to an end—while some readers will look past these structural elements and focus on the drama, the fourth book gets incredibly meta. That we read it in translation makes it even more so. At one point, it describes a translated review of a translated book in a conversation that is being spoken in a second language. Ferrante highlights language and thrusts it to the fore repeatedly. The opposition between the Neapolitan dialect and formal Italian is just one example. It’s tied to other oppositions—emotion and reason; formulation of identity and its destruction; authenticity and pretense; knowledge and ignorance; the two main characters—and the characters call them into question about as often as they can without it becoming a schtick or interfering with the action.
To take so many disparate elements and connect them not only to a solid narrative arc with a phalanx of arresting characters but to language itself is a nearly impossible feat. To question communication both on the linguistic level and as a concept while so perfectly communicating both the minute details that make life concrete and the immense range of emotion present in human existence is more difficult still. I can’t think of another book whose form so spectacularly follows its function, undermining itself as it builds itself down to the sentence level, which in turn mirrors the novel’s events. That it does this while addressing enough weighty ideas for a hundred philosophy courses and covering the pulpy, lurid parts of life that “respectable” literature often omits or marginalizes? That’s certainly a prize-winning feat. If there’s an award for novels that induce dizzying mental tug-of-war, one for books that undermine themselves while proving their own points, or books that make you care deeply about the characters and then damn you for caring. The Story of the Lost Child should win those first. Then, it should win the BTBA.
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