Every evening, when we were around 9 or 10, my sisters and I drank Bournvita at 5 pm. In these small mugs of milk, we dunked two cream-filled Bourbon biscuits. One evening, as half a biscuit was soaking in the sugary chocolate of my mug of milk, my mother came rushing down the stairs, holding my newly-born cousin in her arms. My father’s sister ran after her frantically, repeating “don’t take him from me, don’t take him from me.”
I fled to the kitchen, almost believing that my disappearance would end the drama that was unfolding before me. I watched my mother say to my aunt, “I’m not trying to take him away from you, you are unwell and you can hurt him.” But my aunt was not listening, she was crying, shaking with anger and betrayal.
As I read The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante’s newest novel, I thought of the distance between my 9-year-old self, watching from the kitchen, and the two women fighting, embroiled in drama. Many of Ferrante’s women seem to be in this in-between space—sometimes the woman soaked in madness, and sometimes a confused observer who feels compelled to fold herself into the drama.
Lying Life is a story of growing up. It is also the story of a family that forgets how to be one. The novel’s 12-year-old protagonist, Giovanna, is a carefully sketched caricature of perfection, but the extent of her togetherness only serves to show the ways in which she falls apart so very quickly.
Giovanna is an only child of a large extended family. On her mother’s side are her good relatives and on her father’s side are the bad ones. She grows up being taught about both sides with iron-clad certainty—to be put together and presentable is good, anything else is bad. This constructed clarity dissolves as she learns more about her Aunt Vittoria, a supposedly despicable woman estranged from her family, who turns out to be a woman waiting to be fallen in love with. As Giovanna realises that much of what she has been told is a lie, she enters an intoxicating state of estrangement from her world.
When everything had quietened down, Mumma left home with my sisters and I, vowing to never return again. I remember feeling excited at the possibility of a new life and a new home, empty walls waiting to be marked. But after staying with my mother’s sister for only two weeks, we were back. I was left reeling at the abrupt reset, like nothing bad had prompted our departure. I wondered whether the argument between my mother and aunt wasn’t bad enough to shake things up, or if the adults in my world were simply incapable of reacting to violence. Some days later, I was only told that my aunt had fallen ill and was hallucinating, that she had begun to believe that my mother wanted to kidnap her son. When I tried to ask more questions, I was shooed away into silence.
In the world of adults, children don’t really exist. Whenever I meet my cousins, even now in our own adulthoods, we lament that our parents refuse to acknowledge that we are real people with emotions; they only think of us as afterthoughts, to pay attention to or ignore. It is in this relegation to an afterthought that the tragedy of Lying Life lies.
Unlike in her other novels, Ferrante observes and very clearly documents the pathological patterns of lies that adults build their lives on. Giovanna’s estrangement rests on her sudden ability to see this structure for what it is. Aunt Vittoria is the only woman who seems to be capable of truth, but even she is too busy being an adult to remain consistent. Unlike Lenu from Ferrante’s famed Neapolitan series, who has to endure the violence of people her own age, Giovanna is left feeling so helplessly voiceless in front of the adults that she reacts with violence of her own. She fails school and puts on a show of practiced carelessness. Her estrangement is laced with a key frustration—of being stuck, of living in a world she is not responsible for, but is unable to leave.
The novel presents a buffet of possibilities for drama, with Giovanna’s youth allowing for multiple endings to the story. Will she quit school? Will she slap her father? Will she betray her friend? I waited for the drama hungrily, turning page after page with a pencil in hand to messily draw hearts next to particularly lovely lines, but it lies only in her words, an upward climb towards a peak of emotions that never arrives, until the book suddenly ends and we are thrown back into the undramatic everyday—from the middle of a never-ending climax.
Giovanna’s protest against the world of lies tapers off into a silent nothingness, losing steam as she is eventually faced with exhaustion as the others move on, forgetting to be angry with each other. Louder than anything else is the sad realisation that there is no fanfare or extraordinary knowledge with the arrival of adulthood, there is only resignation.
I read Lying Life on a quiet day of nothing else, six months into a pandemic that has fundamentally changed our connection with the world. Forced by a deadly virus to sit in our carefully guarded silos, it’s difficult not to think of a new form of estrangement—from reality, each other, even our former selves.
During the launch of her recent book, author Nisha Susan said that Ferrante is one of the very few contemporary writers that women have; writers we’re able to pass on to other women with a vow of something like secrecy (the secret is actually just how good the books are). On the day my copy of Lying Life arrived, Instagram showed me the cover of the book on multiple posts, each one bearing a caption of excitement and anticipation. Now more than ever, I wished that I wasn’t reading her alone, that I was in view of other women’s reading of her, trying to figure out if they gasped at the same parts I did.
I sometimes wonder how many women live in Ferrante’s head. Whether they all live together in chaos, or if they exist in overlapping universes. The women in her books seem like mosaic tiles, presenting as different people in different lights. Lila is a younger Aunt Vittoria. Giovanna’s loneliness is much like Lenu’s, and Giovanna’s mother is a calmer, ordinary shade of Olga from The Days of Abandonment.
Ferrante gifts her readers the place of an observer, offering an intimate view of a loneliness and frustration that so many of us are familiar with. She knows what we are going through and promises to write her own version of it. As the book drew to a close, I was left with the same feeling I had when I asked my mother why my aunt had believed that her son was being kidnapped. I asked her repeatedly, why did we come back? Why didn’t we find a space for ourselves where happiness was more easily accessible? Without even looking at me, she said impatiently, “Forget it na, why does it matter to you?”