How would you react if your partner one day walked out on you? In Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment Olga’s husband Mario announces, out of the blue, while clearing the table that he wants to leave her. Overwhelmed by grief, confusion and anger, Olga descends into madness in this raw, brutally honest story. The Days of Abandonment is explosive stuff – as we have come to expect from Ferrante – and all the better for it.
Olga lives in Turin with Mario, her husband of fifteen years, two young children, Ilaria and Gianni, and their dog Otto. We meet them as Mario is moving out. ‘He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, perhaps of cowardice.’ Of course, it’s more complicated than that and soon Olga learns that there’s another woman involved.
Overwhelmed by grief and the burden of looking after her children and dog, Olga’s behaviour becomes erratic.
I began to change. In the course of a month I lost the habit of putting on makeup carefully, I went from using a refined language, attentive to the feelings of others, to a sarcastic way of expressing myself, punctuated by coarse laughter. Slowly, in spite of my resistance, I also gave in to obscenity.
The story is told by Olga – a classic case of an unreliable narrator – and we never quite know how much is real and how much is in Olga’s increasingly disturbed mind. She starts to swear uncontrollably, harms herself, locks her children up, is paralysed when Gianni and Otto fall sick and essentially becomes unable to care for herself and her children. Help comes from an unexpected place in the form of the shabby, slightly hostile, hermit-like musician neighbour.
Is it possible to turn this well-worn premise for a story into something new and compelling, you might wonder. Well, Ferrante does it. With her rare ability to inhabit someone else’s feelings completely and convincingly and the genuineness of her writing, The Days of Abandonment is an original tale of the loss of a lover, husband and father, of self-confidence and self-control.
It’s hard not to imagine that this is something she’s experienced herself. Perhaps it is? Given Ferrante’s well-publicised anonymity, we might never know.
The Days of Abandonment is published by Europa Editions, 188 pages.