Paperback reviews: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Before the Fall, Into the Trees, Million Dollar Arm, Floating City

 

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The Independent Culture

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante (Europa Editions £11.99)

Elena Ferrante’s magnificent “Neopolitan novels” trace the relationship between two headstrong Italian women, from their schooldays in the 1950s to the present day. In the first volume, the narrator – who shares the author’s first name – documents how her “brilliant friend” Lila left school to marry a local mafioso while she went on to university; in the second book, Elena becomes a successful novelist while Lila leaves her abusive husband and takes a job at a sausage factory.

This, the third entry in the series, picks up the story in the late-1960s and 1970s. Elena marries a wealthy young scholar and moves to Florence to raise a family, while Lila becomes involved in leftist politics in Naples. They stay in touch, but their relationship is now tinged with envy. Elena finds herself unhappy: her husband is cold, her children difficult. While Lila lives in relative poverty, she seems to Elena to enjoy “absolute freedom”, to wield increasing power as she prosecutes “her wretched neighbourhood wars”. Elena comes to feel restless for her own independence.

Although Ferrante is notoriously reclusive, her books appear deeply personal. The passages here concerning sex and motherhood are told with such acuteness – there is almost a surfeit of detail – that the reader feels as if eavesdropping on a confession meant for someone else’s ears.

But these books are more than autobiography by other means. They also look outward, offering a dissection of Italian society  that is almost Tolstoyan in its sweep and ambition. They are, into the bargain, extraordinarily gripping entertainment; the plot in this latest instalment twists and turns, like a Naples alleyway, towards a sequel-enabling conclusion. Novel by novel, Ferrante’s series is building into one of the great achievements of modern literature.

*****

Before the Fall by Juliet West (Pan £7.99)

London, 1916: Hannah Loxwood’s husband has volunteered to fight in the trenches, leaving her to look after their two young children. Feeling abandoned and lonely, she finds solace in an affair with Daniel, a dockworker with a passion for the works of Thomas Hardy. When she falls pregnant they try to find a way to be together away from the censorious eyes of the community – only for Daniel to receive his enlistment papers.

This is West’s debut novel, and it demonstrates promise. Her writing is satisfyingly atmospheric: her East End is damp and squalid, cast in a sub-aqueous murk. Hannah’s desperation is sensitively described: she has a morbid obsession with the Thames, and experiences social ostracism as a form of drowning.

But Daniel is not as well drawn – his reading of 19th-century literature tends to serve as a shorthand for his sensitivity, standing in for any proper character development – which means that the tragic ending to the lovers’ story carries rather less impact than it might have.

***

Into the Trees by Robert Williams (Faber £7.99)

The Nortons’ baby daughter, Ann, is perfect in every way, except one: she will not stop crying. Increasingly desperate, her parents try everything they can to comfort her. Eventually, they stumble upon a remedy: the quiet and darkness of Abbeystead forest seems to send her to sleep. The family moves into a converted barn nestled in the trees, and life is peaceful once more. Until, that is, an armed gang descends upon their home and throws their lives into disarray. Robert Williams uses the unusual, meandering plot of Into the Trees to explore various social issues, including attitudes to mental illness and alcoholism. But the forest setting also lends the book a mysterious, melancholy quality reminiscent of a fairytale. Excellent.

****

Million Dollar Arm by J B Bernstein (Simon & Schuster £7.99)

Sports agent J B Bernstein describes how he created The Million Dollar Arm, a reality television series that set out to find Indian kids with a talent for ... baseball. Bernstein brought the winners, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, back to the United States where they became the first Indians to play the sport professionally. Bernstein is not what you’d call a modest man. But as unseemly as the author’s macho posturing is, it’s always preferable to the schmaltzy account of how meeting Dinesh and Rinku had changed him: “For the first time in my life I was proud of someone other than myself, and it felt good,” he says. Disney has, inevitably, bought the film rights to the story.

**

Floating City: Hustlers, Strivers, Dealers, Call Girls and Other Lives in Illicit New York by Sudhir Venkatesh (Penguin £9.99)

Sudhir Venkatesh is an ethnographer, “someone who spends lots of time watching people”. In Floating City he documents his investigation into New York’s underground economy, discovering that the city’s criminal elements increasingly “float”, between social circles high and low. As Venkatesh explores New York’s criminal class he reconsiders his approach to his work, which had previously centred on studying fixed social groups. But the book is far from a dry sociological treatise. Indeed, it reads more like a piece of noir fiction: it’s packed full of fascinating characters, from Analise, a rich young socialite who becomes a pimp, to Shine, Venkatesh’s drug-world contact, who speaks in a sort of vivid street poetry.

***

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