Ferrante is sublimely gifted in portraying emotional claustrophobia. Her contaminated characters are the sum of their subterranean self-doubt. Meet Delia. Her 63-year-old mother Amalie has just drowned herself near Naples. Delia’s presence at the funeral coupled with an anxious wish to “become” the death — “I was no I.” — are passage into that anti-idyll known as memory (“Childhood is a tissue of lies that endures in the past tense…). A seamstress, Amalie was repeatedly and bloodily beaten by a jealous father (“… to shape her like a stone or log…”), finally leaving him after two decades. A married flirt named Caserta was part of the reason. But why then was Amalia seeing Caserta before her suicide? How did Delia’s youthful perception of her mother’s desires abet her father’s frenzy? What about the basement sexual games played out between Delia and Caserta’s son Antonio, whom she now meets again? Or was someone else in the basement?
Delia, a comic strip artist who is companionless at 45, steps whole into the past’s tawdry suspense, into fetishes and personal recrimination, as if climbing willingly into a scalding bath. Like so many Ferrante narrators, she believes she deserves the resulting burns. Atonement and resignation coexist. Few writers convey hidden family ruin with such terse beauty and none so lucidly gets to the “perverse constancy” of provincial Italy.