Elena Ferrante’s debut novel, Troubling Love, is an oddball. Like her other novels, this too is a deep dive into the psychological relationship between a mother and daughter, but unlike her other novels, the site of this excavation is the body and the mind.

After her mother’s suicide, middle-aged Delia returns to her mother’s home in Naples to piece together her final days. By her own admission, the suicide is rather unoriginal – Amalia (Delia addresses her mother in the first person) has drowned herself. She was found wearing only her bra – an expensive one at that – and her body showed no signs of assault.

After going through the usual post-death rituals, Delia can only think about how she no longer has any “obligation” to worry about her mother. She gets her period during the funeral and whatever grief she might be feeling for her mother is interrupted by the more urgent task of finding a tampon and cleaning herself. The body – for as long as it is alive – demands our complete attention. Even the absolute certainty of death feels redundant against the absolute surety of the corporeal self.

Amalia, the mother

As Delia traverses Naples in search of a washroom, Ferrante’s description of the city as a stinking, putrid hellhole will put off any aspiring tourist. Everything is going poorly for Delia, who harbours a deep distaste for her hometown. Her bleeding womb and a dissatisfying sexual encounter with a childhood friend make her doubly miserable. In an attempt to re-live her mother’s last days in this world, she traces down her one-armed uncle who makes it aptly clear that he’s tired of both women. She also gets in touch with her long-lost father who (literally!) greets her with a punch. The only kindly presence in Amalia’s life – and therefore, perhaps even hers – is of her elderly next-door neighbour Signora De Riso.

The other person who might have brought her mother some joy is Caserta – a man whom Delia as a young child had accused her mother of having an affair with. The child’s accusations are taken seriously by the father who slaps and kicks his wife freely in response. The only time when Amalia stands up to him is in the packed public buses in Naples – sweaty, stinking of ammonia – where she looks men squarely in the face and enjoys their suggestive glances and roving hands. The expensive bra that Delia finds on her dead mother intrigues her greatly: When did her mother start wearing expensive underwear and for what reasons?

The puzzle starts to get more complicated to piece together and Delia suspects that perhaps she did not know her mother at all. It is only in her death that she can see Amalia as a beautiful woman mired in the unhappiness of marriage and motherhood. As she goes deeper into the investigation, the inescapable realisation that she has grown into the image of her mother strikes her: “I was Amalia,” she concludes plainly.

Delia, the daughter

In her debut novel, Ferrante set out on a theme that she’d keep visiting in her subsequent novels – that of the unexpressed, unknown closeness between mothers and daughters. It’s marred with anger, secrets, and guilt but it is a bond of and for life. Through Delia and Amalia’s story, Ferrante pokes at the wound that is already festering within so many of us. The father’s abuse of the mother is brutal and the daughter cannot deny her part in it, and yet, she is not abandoned by the mother. The mother, who is physically absent in the most absolute way, watches over her daughter as she makes her own discoveries about the past and accepts her mother for who she was. The love, which she probably never received from her daughter while she was alive, comes slowly to her in the afterlife.

Amalia’s suicide, the shock and unexpectedness of it, cannot make Delia cry. Her grief is overshadowed by the desperate need to know the events that led to her mother’s death. The inability to express sorrow thus becomes a confession of guilt. What starts as a psychological mystery, becomes a testament to the helplessness of the mother and the child in the presence of the demon-like father. The subjugation and humiliation flow from the mother’s blood into the child’s and both are impaired from loving – and more importantly, seeing – each other fully.

Troubling Love is a stifled cry masquerading as a novel. Delia’s coldness and fixation on the needs and mysteries of the body end only when she gathers the courage to look for Amalia in her recently clicked ID photograph. I don’t know what happens to Amalia after that, but perhaps she accepts the inescapable alikeness by finally shedding the first tear for a mother she never knew.

Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions.