Friday, 11 September 2015

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT by Elena Ferrante

This is a book about the dangers of putting all your eggs in one basket, especially if that basket is your husband’s. The main character here, Olga, has been married fifteen years and has two small children. One day after lunch her husband tells her suddenly that he is leaving her. Thus begins a massive and not very proudly feminist meltdown.

The husband doesn’t come back for thirty four days, and Olga starts to come apart. She has moved many times for her husband’s job, so has few friends nearby, and gave up employment at his request. She’s therefore left with not too much to fall back on, and she falls hard. She does some ordinary post break-up things (e.g., propositioning the neighbour for anal sex), and then moves on to the less ordinary. On one terrible day she seems to be losing her sanity, almost drowning her little girl while trying to wash her and unable to focus long enough to phone a doctor even though the little boy appears dangerously ill. It’s all told from her perspective, as she tries to hold on to her mind, and it’s very frightening. We’re definitely on the edge of Medea territory:
The children hadn’t eaten anything. I myself still had to have breakfast, wash. The hours were passing. I had to separate the dark clothes from the white. I had no more clean underwear. The vomit-stained sheets. Run the vaccuum. Housecleaning.
Pretty often I hate this kind of thing – insanity being as difficult to write about as dreams are – but the extraordinary Ferrante of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND manages it.

Olga comes through it in the end, more or less unscarred, particularly after she finds out that her husband has left her for a twenty year old he used to coach when she was a teenager. This is hardly the calibre of man for whom its worth losing a mind.

The only false note, for me, was the resolution, where Olga ends up with the neighbour she previously propositioned. I’m not sure a new man is a good cure for having been too hung up on the old one – but there it is. At least she’s not trying to drown the children any more.

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