The first I ever heard of Elena Ferrante was maybe five years ago, when an extremely well-read American friend - we'll call him E - was explaining why, after a lifetime, he had given up reading fiction. Essentially, E explained, it's not authentic; it's more about artifice than truth; it all felt rather pointless.
However, there was one exception: Ferrante's Neapolitan quartet, which had been published from 2011-14 in her native Italian, then each in translation roughly a year later, and was beginning to get real traction among Anglophone readers and critics.
E had never read anything quite like Ferrante, in terms of style - or rather, lack of style - or rather, there is a style but it's wrought so subtly that you don't realise it's there. It's evinced in her latest novel, The Lying Life of Adults, as clearly as in the Neapolitan novels.
She uses language in an unusual but confident way. There are hardly any similes or metaphors, very little obviously symbolic or allegorical language; the stories are told in a direct, unembellished fashion.
This sounds like damning with faint praise, as if a) the author hasn't the skill for linguistic flourishes and b) the books are straight stories, with no depth, poetry, beauty or imagery.
Both untrue, especially the second part. Ferrante's novels capture the essential strangeness and mysteriousness of existence in a way that is doubly powerful because their settings seem, on the surface, so workaday and unexceptional (in The Lying Life of Adults, it's the coming-of-age of a teenage girl in early 1990s Naples).
Her stripped-down style gives an incredible immediacy to the work. It feels as if the usual intermediate stage, between text and reader, has been removed - the author has absented herself, presenting something undistilled and almost elemental.
Reading is by its nature an immersive experience, more than other types of arts/entertainment; with Ferrante, that experience is intensified. The reader honestly does feel as if they are right there, walking those shabby-beautiful streets, feeling the Naples heat, listening to the local dialect and observing the social interactions of a cast of vividly rendered characters.
And it goes deeper than that: Ferrante's novels, as well as capturing the feel of a place and culture, burrow into the inner lives of her dramatis personae. There are times when you almost feel as if the dividing line between your mind and that of the character have become blurred; as far as your subconscious is concerned, you're not just reading about that girl, or her friend, or her aunt; in some ways, you've become them, however momentarily. It all makes for a tremendously rich, intense experience.
The Lying Life of Adults follows Giovanna as she navigates the murky, exciting and potentially dangerous journey from 13 to 16; that is, from early adolescence to the borders of young adulthood. Her parents are middle-class, slightly right-on, slightly unhappy.
Her best friends are sisters Angela and Ida, though that friendship is at times uneasy. Clever, self-lacerating and painfully honest about her and others' failings, Giovanna is dissatisfied with and alienated from everything, in that quintessentially adolescent way.
Her aunt Vittoria - estranged sister of her rather pretentious father - lives in a slummy part of Naples. Curiosity piqued by how this woman has been excised from her own family, Giovanna begins a relationship. Through her abrasive, eccentric aunt, she meets a host of others - brash youngster Currado, his fragile and beautiful sister Giuliana, her almost saintly boyfriend Roberto.
Ferrante knows the teenage mind well; this kind of Bildungsroman seems to be a forte, and Giovanna and her peers are exceedingly well-drawn. The novel doesn't shy away from the more distasteful elements of their lives; some of the young men's attitudes to sex, for example, are very troubling, and Giovanna herself has a bleak, narcissistic view of it.
But it's complex, and complicated; these aren't necessarily bad kids and the world isn't black and white. Giovanna is thoughtful, contemplative and, in her own way, principled; the sometimes obnoxious young lads can be kind and reasonable, even mature to some degree.
A lot of it, Ferrante seems to suggest, is merely the unavoidable condition of youth. As the shepherd laments in The Winter's Tale, "I would there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting."
Shakespeare is being overly harsh, but we are heedless at that age; we are self-absorbed, tempestuous, sort of absurd. And yet most of us come through it all the same, reaching adulthood and some measure of equilibrium and accommodation with the world - however much it be populated by liars - perhaps scarred but hopefully not mortally wounded.
The novel's closing line (which, incidentally, could be seen as teeing up a new series) is a cri de cœur from Giovanna that is simultaneously ridiculous and wonderful. It shouts out the boundless possibility and optimism of youth - tempered with the foreknowledge that none of us is special, the gods laugh at mortal plans… and life tends to just happen, however we might want it to go.
Darragh McManus's books include 'Devil Hang Over Me' and 'Red Raven'