In a ragged post-war Neapolitan suburb, families send their children to school under sufferance. But two young pupils – pointlessly enough, girls – exhibit well above-average intellectual ability. But which one of the pair is the brilliant friend? Studious, pragmatic Elena, or the mercurial, nihilistic Lila?
The girls’ time and place is particularly dangerous. “Our world was like that, full of words that killed: croup, tetanus, typhus, gas, war, lathe, rubble, work, bombardment, bomb, tuberculosis, infection. With these words and those years I bring back the many fears that accompanied me all my life.” But then again, it is an all-too familiar child’s world of not quite-real, misunderstood dangers, “You could also die of things that seemed normal. You could die, for example, if you were sweating and then drank cold water from the tap without first bathing your wrists: you’d break out in red spots, you’d start coughing, and be unable to breathe You could die if you ate black cherries and didn’t spit out the pits. You could die if you chewed American gum and inadvertently swallowed it. You could die if you banged your temple. The temple, in particular, was a fragile place, we were all careful about it,” As a child I firmly believed that if you tried to spin a hula hoop on your neck, you would get a staple in your neck and die; if you wrote on yourself with a pen you would get blood-poisoning and die; if you swam too soon after lunch you would die. Mind you, I also believed that my grandmother had lived for decades with a loose sewing needle touring her blood vessels. This book captures that sense of the ignorance and insularity of childhood.
The girls live closely with their generally illiterate, violent, superstitious and suspicious neighbours.. Don Achille, the monstrous bogey man of the neighbourhood (for no particular reason) is believed by the Lena and Lila to have stolen their dolls (their friends) and to have put them into his big black bag. Lila displays enormous courage and effrontery in the event. Her intellectual genius and quicksilver flashes of desperate bravado enchant Lena who is content to play second-fiddle, to be the clever, but studious and plodding one. But it is Lila who settles for marriage with a kind, and ineffectual neighbour, while Lena finds out to her amazement that there are institutions of learning beyond high school.
There are few ‘likeable’ characters in this book, they are ready with their fists, ignorant, grasping and untrustworthy for the most part. Lena and Lila stand out, as clever girls do, but are spared sentimentality. We certainly cannot be assured of happy endings in the following books. This is a rich psychologically aware tale of influence, perception and fate. For once, with a modern series, I look forward to reading the following books.