Thursday, April 15

From brotherly love to enemy friends: the best female friends in the books | Fiction


WWhat I miss the most in life before the confinement is not the festivals, not even the trips abroad, but the time with my friends. Discomfort, I think, is rampant, so here are some books to dive into complex female friendships, occasionally hurtful, but always irreplaceable.

In Sula, by Toni Morrison, Nel and Sula are best friends in a poor, black Ohio community where women can take on many roles, but not the one Sula chooses, free from social and sexual constraints. Everyone rejects her, even Nel, whose marriage falls apart in the face of Sula’s seductive presence. Nel is in mourning for years, but comes to understand, as Sula did before her, that it was not her husband that she missed, but her relationship with her best friend. Morrison says it was the women around her, all in struggle, all poor, who inspired the book. “The things we exchange! Time, food, money, clothes, laughter, memory and daring. Especially daring … “

In its Neapolitan Quartet Elena Ferrante analyzes the ebb and flow of love and hatred between Lila and Lenù, in the violent and repressive culture of a district of Naples, after meeting in the 1950s. “Lila pushed me to do things that I would never have had the Courage to do it myself ”, says Lenù, her friend who provides her with the material that allows Lenù to escape and become a writer. Ferrante is unfazed by the destructive side of their powerfully catalytic friendship.

'An enemy element' ... Vera Brittain's best friend, Winifred Holtby.
‘An enemy element’ … Vera Brittain’s best friend, Winifred Holtby.

TO friend enemy element also leaks in Vera Brittain Friendship testament. At first glance, it’s a brilliant portrait of her best friend, the writer and activist Winifred Holtby, who died at 37. The two were inseparable, they even lived together after Brittain got married, Holtby neglecting her own writing to help with the chores while Brittain finished. Testament of youth. In the epilogue, Brittain admits that she took advantage of Holtby’s generous nature to pursue her own talents, an honest acknowledgment of the fact that for women to believe, they often require the sacrifice of other women’s time. Deep friendships survive periods of neglect or imbalance, but Holtby died before Brittain could pay the debt.

At Sebastian Barry’s Annie dunne, Such interdependence unfolds smoothly and movingly. Annie and her cousin Sarah live and work on a small farm in a remote part of Wicklow, Ireland, in the 1950s. Both spinsters, Annie had been evicted or rejected by all of her other relatives, before Sarah took her in. Over the course of a summer, during which Annie is terrified of being thrown out again, the two women realize that only they truly see each other’s qualities. Their friendship is what makes their lives important. “I see that there is something about Sarah that no one can contradict, the inadvertent quality of her courage, the beauty of her considerable soul.”

This testimony and recognition that women get along so well with each other is at the heart of Bernardine Evaristo’s delightful novel in verse, The Emperor’s Baby. Zuleika, a third-century first-generation immigrant in Londinium, is seen at age 11 in the Cheapside baths by a Roman nobleman three times her age and size whom she quickly marries. Alba, who encourages Zuleika to fulfill her dream of being a poet and living love, makes her absences and unwanted presences bearable. As is often the case, both in life and in art, you have to pay for that daring.

In these sad and puzzling days, explorations of female friendships provide wisdom and nourishment without escaping political reality. In Morrison’s words, “seizing freedom seemed imperative. Some of us prosper; some of us die. We all tried it. “

A Lucy Jago Small Fish Net is published by Bloomsbury (£ 16.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.

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