This gently paced book is about life growing up in the slums of post-war Naples. Elena and Lila become friends at a very early age. Books, education and reading are disparaged in their community of low-earning workers, but Elena and Lila are both precocious readers. Lila is the brighter, but Elena is the more applied, and although their paths start to diverge as they hit their teenage years, their friendship is profound.
It’s difficult to say why I liked this book as much as I did. I needed a change from potboilers, it’s true, but it was more than that. I felt drawn into Elena’s world in a way that few books have drawn me in. Elena and Lila live in a world with many parallels with, but many very big differences from the world in which I grew up. Glasgow in the 1970s was also a place of poverty, fights, rivalries, vendettas, violence and joy. It was also a place of unexpected kindness, acts of extraordinary generosity (often from those who could least afford it) and, despite it all, of almost contrarian optimism. Glasgow didn’t have the passionate romances, declarations of love and displays of emotion of Naples, but there was enough overlap. I was in the moment when Lila is bullied, I was rooting for Elena when she struggles with Latin, I was balling my fists when she is sexually assaulted just as I found her own confusion at her body’s reaction so utterly believable.
Perhaps this is the root of it. The portrayal of the inner lives of young people is very difficult to pull off. Any (honest!) adult remembers their adolescence as a time of confusion, but it’s very difficult to unpack what we were confused about. This book portrays it beautifully without ever falling into the traps of condescension or trivialisation. I look forwards to finding the next three volumes in the series.