Monday, August 4, 2014

WITMonth Day 4 - The Days of Abandonment | Review

It's hard to be a reader of literature in translation in recent months without having heard of Elena Ferrante. Praise has simply overflowed for Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels (published in English by Europa Editions, all translated by Ann Goldstein), with a fair share of notice for Ferrante's earlier The Days of Abandonment as well. I kept seeing such rave reviews, I knew I'd have to read one of Ferrante's novels for WITMonth. Then, at Hebrew Book Week, a bookseller began to wax lyrical about The Days of Abandonment after I asked him for recommendations. I bought the book, went home, and read it a couple weeks later.

And goodness if it isn't a fantastic book.

The Days of Abandonment starts where a lot of stories get to - a woman's husband leaves her. Olga and Mario have been together for years - they've built a home together and have two children together. But now Mario, in what at first seems to Olga utterly out-of-character, announces after dinner that he simply cannot stay anymore, that it's too much for him. And he walks out the door, and Olga's story may begin.

This abandonment is the trigger for the journey on which Olga now embarks. The Days of Abandonment tracks Olga through her initial shock - and outright denial - straight through to her realization of what sort of marriage she had had and who her husband was. This is a painful, raw journey, often so realistic and terrifying in its presentation of life on the edge that just the act of reading it felt like letting some demon into my soul.

Ferrante is an unforgiving writer. She takes no shortcuts in the narrative, nor does she gloss over the difficulty of suddenly being thrown into a new reality. There is no coy foreshadowing here, no attempts at clever plot twists. In this sense, The Days of Abandonment thus ends up feeling somewhat subversive - this shocking novel turns into something believable and unexpected because of how normal it feels. Olga's steady loss of control and gradual disappearance into the madness that is abandonment felt like a painful, preventable slide. I found myself so quickly drawn into the story that I just wanted desperately to shake Olga.

Two sides?
Suffice to say, these qualities make The Days of Abandonment a far from pleasant read. The frankness with which Ferrante shows us two different sides of Olga (and Mario, and their two children as well) can be quite uncomfortable at times, with a sort of vivid realism that settles in deep. This is curiously reflected by Olga's children as well, who respond and mimic their mother's struggles knowingly and subconsciously. In the most painful and nerve-wracking part of the book, this reflection becomes a literal one, as Olga is forced to face her problems head on.

The Days of Abandonment is not a flawless, perfect book. Its pacing is occasionally off and there were characters I constantly hoped for more from, yet all in all there's no denying the power behind Ferrante's words. This reclusive writer (who some have theorized is actually a man despite interviews showing that she has described herself as a mother, so this seems unlikely...) captures life so sharply, so cleanly, that I am honestly in awe. Are there subplots I would have omitted from the story? Most definitely. Are there scenes that were so painful that I had to set the book aside? Yes. But is this a powerful, brilliantly written account of one woman's struggles? Absolutely. I am without a doubt going to read the remainder of Ferrante's books - if you're looking for excellent books by women writers in translation, I think it's fair to say that Ferrante will make a fantastic first stop.

3 comments:

  1. I share the same fascination with "The Days of Abandonment" when I read it a few years back. Following the tension surrounding between the radically altered situation that the protagonist went through and her struggle to maintain a sense of normality is just heart-wrenching. Thinking about her circumstance becomes even more painful when one realizes that this kind of thing is a daily reality for many women around the world.

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  2. Your enthusiastic reviews are so persuasive, I've only just found your blog and already ordered books by Yoko Ogawa and Angelische G and now this review is tempting me. What to do? But I will not say stop it.

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  3. Great review. Having just read this book I can see what you mean when you say the act of reading it feels like letting a demon into your soul. I loved the candour and fearless nature of Ferrante's writing; it's a real tour de force of a book.

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