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  • Adam Tye

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: "Overwhelming Sensory Assault"


"Ferrante exposes the battlefield lying underneath the mundane everyday world - the war that rages over our sense of selfhood." This is what I wrote back in my initial review of My Brilliant Friend: Ferrante's first entry in her Neapolitan Quartet, and a transcendent exposé of childhood psychology. But what happens when the battlefield is no longer subtextual: when the fascists are killing people in the streets, the people you know begin to wither from ill-health, and households are ripped in two? What do Ferrante's considerable talents of observations reveal then? What is left to uncover in a world where the bile and violence is swelling into pockets and bursting through to the surface? Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay revels in a sense of overwhelming sensory assault, the likes of which previous entries in the Quartet merely offered a glimpse into. Where My Brilliant Friend was a novel of innocence punctured, and The Story of a Lost Child mined a protracted island vacation for self-loathing and indecision, the third novel drowns us in a miasma of detail. Political factions, ideology, the dawning computer age, and a labyrinth of publishing troubles swallow the opening act of this novel to such an extent that I do not believe we are meant to fully wrap our minds around it at first glance. There is no doubt that a thorough rereading will produce a bounty of treasures and insights into the political world our characters inhabit, but the initial impression is of a world so large that it slips through your fingers. We see this with Elena - finally unshackled to become the driving force of the narrative - and how she wades into debates without conviction one way or the other, only for the allure and eventual pain of motherhood to subsume these issues entirely. It will surprise no-one who has made it this far into the series that the observations and confessions offered by the protagonist are not always comfortable ones, and motherhood does not escape this brutality. Much like in her previous work, The Lost Daughter, Ferrante returns to the anguished feelings of motherhood: an unspeakable (maybe taboo) feeling of disconnect between a parent and their child, and the revulsion that grows as the latter is seen not as a vulnerable child, but as a screaming, grasping, selfish organism that acts independent of our own will. Yet, where her earlier work compacted these feelings into a neat little novella, Those Who Leave gathers them into a larger, messier whole, situating these ideas within Elena’s well-established psychology. With this character, Ferrante’s cynicism finds a buffer of sorts: a cushion to catch ideas that were arguably too unwieldy, too alarming, for the comparatively slight The Lost Daughter: the idea that you feel no kinship to your own children, and that you would leave them for a long-abandoned idea of happiness, should it present itself at last. One of the great feats of this series is how it will take these kinds of inner-thoughts - at once, abhorrent and contradictory - and make them seem inevitable. Elena can wish for the death of her friend (a pattern of thought that re-emerges here) and you will not only understand how we arrived there, but you might even, for a flash, feel that awful desire too. Those Who Leave continues this mastery of psychology, but with an added wrinkle: a seeming admission that it can no longer justify Elena's decisions without admitting how they are seen by others. And we see this not in the characters that Ferrante excavates with pinpoint accuracy, but rather in the one left paper-thin: her own mother - a haunting figure of hate that has threatened to consume Elena's destiny from page one; the bitterness of the parent coming to roost in the future of the daughter. She is a phantom figure in Elena's life, and one that remains surprisingly neglected by the narration. We see her only as a silhouette: her un-interrogated psychology lurking at the margins and causing despair in our protagonist. The result of this literary decision is that we come to know her in brief, yet clearly identifiable ways - patterns of behaviour so razor sharp, that it is impossible not to notice when her daughter begins to copy them. The fear Elena begins to inspire in her own children, and the acknowledgment that her progressive thinking is being swept away in a frenzy of over-protective familial urges: these traits don't just match those of her mother, but in seeing them through Elena, begin to explain them, too. We've been inside Elena's head for so long - seen her move, step-by-step, towards decisions we know are bad for her - and in seeing that humanity, it becomes hard not to ask: what lead Elena's mother to the place she is at? Is there an empathetic look into her soul that we are denied, the way Elena has been denied it her entire life? I was, and still am, unsure of the best method of attack with which to approach Those Who Leave. It is a large, complicated story full of slippery characters and even more slippery politics: a book with ideas so large that it feels the characters themselves cannot cope with the strain, and thus their agency is obliterated in a spiral of indecision.


When the final pages roll around, and Elena makes her move at last, it is a bittersweet moment. One the one hand, her actions reveal this to be a novel of degradation: of the impermanence of things, and the power people have in deciding which parts of life stay, and which ones are destroyed. On the other: well, at least Elena realises she has that power too.

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