Troubling Love

By Elena Ferrante. Europa, $14.95 paperback.

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Death doesn’t really have any explanation, but that never stops us from asking why. Countless novels have addressed the subject of how, and who (as in whodunit?), stories that skirt the big metaphysical question and formulaically satisfy with a Band-Aid—Colonel Mustard in the parlor with the candelabra.

Elena Ferrante’s new novel, Troubling Love (her first novel, but the second to be translated in the U.S.), masquerades as a detective story—complete with icky perversions, secret packages and anonymous phone calls—but ultimately embraces the utter incomprehensibility of loss. The story opens with the mysterious drowning of the narrator’s mother. Delia, the grieving daughter, spends the rest of the book trying to piece together the disparate elements that made up her mother’s last days.

None of it, however, adds up or satisfies, exactly. Delia’s investigation, a hallucinatory odyssey through the cruddy Neapolitan streets of her childhood, gradually gives way to the revelation of a deeply repressed memory. The buried secret doesn’t explain her mother’s death, but it does reveal why Delia is so consumed by the circumstances of the drowning. It’s a deliciously obscure Freudian dream narrative.

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, this journey draws vigorously on its cityscape. Naples is one of those sun-drenched spooky cities, thrumming with life and populated by ghosts, spastic with impermeable local culture. In some ways, the vivid effect of Troubling Love is, also like Joyce’s novel, inextricable from its native tongue, and suffers the translation to English more than Days of Abandonment, Ferrante’s spare second book, did. Still, her raw, heady intimacy is unique and disturbingly compelling, like gorgeous roadkill. — Minna Proctor

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