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The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante


The Lost Daughter is a study in contrast to almost any novel I have read before. The central character, Leda, is cool, aloof, self-critical, and unmaternal. She has previously abandoned her daughters to pursue her own interests, which is socially taboo. Placing such an unlikeable character at the heart of a book is a risk. But it works. Brilliantly.


The story is written in the first person and I suspect that elements of it are autobiographical, which may be a common assumption for readers searching for a clue about the real identity of the author.


Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym and I am not the first to try to identify the person behind the name. Ferrante has herself admitted in published letters that she is from Naples, now single, an academic and also a mother – all qualities which the subject of The Lost Daughter possesses. However, better brains than mine have focussed their energies on unmasking the author before and – having considered the importance of knowing – I have decided that the need to know diminishes the author.


It is frequently assumed by readers that a book is autobiographical and, as a writer, I personally know that there is a safety on drawing on what we know. But it is also an insult to the creative process to assume that all that is written is drawn from real life. Sometimes a seed of an idea stems from a minor encounter, the smallest of incidents, and from this grows an entire book. And in the case of Ferrante, a brilliant, menacing, tale of loss and unhealthy introspection, which keeps the reader engaged throughout.


The book is small. It’s more the size of a short story (singular) and I suspect that this version was published to coincide with the Maggie Gyllenhaal film starring the stunning Olivia Colman. Ferrante also wrote My Brilliant Friend, The Lost Daughter and Troubling Love, among others. She has been named as one of the world’s most influential women and has been shortlisted for numerous prestigious literary prizes including The Man Booker. So, surely it is a wonderful thing that she has done so on merit alone, in complete anonymity?


How liberating it must be to write without fear or favour. Ferrante herself said: “Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume—as if the book were a little dog and I were its master—it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.”


Reviewer: Peta Stavelli

Allen and Unwin