‘The Story of the Lost Child’ is the fourth and final novel by Elena Ferrante in her series of Neapolitan novels translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. While the third volume Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay ended with Elena and Nino seemingly walking off into the sunset, it will come as no surprise to readers that it isn’t long before all is not well in their relationship. Having returned to Naples to be with Nino, Elena is reunited with Lila and becomes embroiled in the politics and violence of their neighbourhood once again.
2015 was the year Elena Ferrante’s consistently excellent series about the friendship and rivalry between childhood friends Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo really took off in the English-speaking world mostly through word-of-mouth recommendations. Even though it’s very rare for me to read consecutive books by the same author, I read ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ immediately after finishing ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’, such is the power of the Neapolitan novels.
Spanning approximately three decades, the final volume takes a wider view of Elena and Lila’s lives through later adulthood with Lila making a welcome return to the centre of Elena’s life having been apart from her for much of the previous volume. As ever, the rich narrative is driven by the contrast between Elena’s academic career and family life across northern and southern Italy as well as the contradictions and complexities of her friendship with Lila. The powerful earthquake which stuck Naples in 1980 marks a key turning point in their friendship, as do the circumstances surrounding the “lost child” referred to in the title, while the ending draws on events from the very beginning of My Brilliant Friend.
Lots of readers have said that ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ is the best in the series but I don’t think I could rank the books individually. While each volume has its own merits and reveals new surprises, it is the experience of reading and absorbing the series as a whole which has been particularly special, thanks to the skill with which Ferrante has maintained such a high standard of consistency across the saga.
Having repeatedly failed to make the cut on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlists, I am hoping that 2016 is the year when Elena Ferrante is finally recognised by translated fiction prize judges and I will be very surprised (and annoyed) if ‘The Story of the Lost Child’ is excluded from the revamped Man Booker International Prize whose longlist is due to be revealed in March this year.