Like the final installment in any work of serial fiction, The Story of the Lost Child, the fourth of Elena Ferrante’s celebrated Neapolitan novels, has a lot to deliver on. This last volume has two tasks in particular. It must solve the mystery of the callous behavior of the narrator, Elena Greco, in the first scene of the first novel, My Brilliant Friend. When the son of her best friend of 60 years, Raffaella (or Lila) Cerullo, calls to say that Lila has disappeared, Elena irritably instructs him to stop worrying and stop calling. The final book must also produce the catastrophe that has been gathering force since that first book’s next scene, a flashback to the women’s childhood, during which, Elena informs us, the two of them “were always going toward something terrible that had existed before us yet had always been waiting for us, just for us.” And when that “something terrible” materializes, it must feel both inevitable and unexpected.
The story of Lila and Elena begins in that flashback, in a slum in Naples in the early 1950s. The girls are 8 and fearfully climbing the stairs to the apartment of Don Achille, the local loan shark. He’s the sort of man parents warn children to stay away from, so the girls figure he must be “created out of some unidentifiable material, iron, glass, nettles, but alive, alive, the hot breath streaming from his nose and mouth.” Monster that he is, he has stolen their two beloved dolls, or so they imagine, and Lila, the bold one, wants to confront him. Elena, quavering, trails behind.
It’s a testament to Ferrante’s skill as a storyteller that, three volumes later, she circles back to the key elements of this primal scene without our having quite seen where she was headed. Twenty-some years after the girls climbed the stairs, they’re back in the old slum. Everything is the same but also, obviously, different. The dolls have been replaced by babies. The danger Lila refuses to acknowledge is clearer. As children, Elena and Lila couldn’t name the actual disasters “at the origin of a sense of disaster,” in Elena’s words. As adults, they have begun to make them out. The ogre has a more familiar face, or faces. He can be glimpsed in childhood buddies who now work in the Neapolitan crime syndicate called the Camorra, and in the signs of their city’s moral and physical decay. He’s all the more frightening for no longer being a figure in a fairy tale. Except that, in some ways, he still is.