This is the first time I’ve read Muriel Barbery but I know of her past work which is very much set in the real world with some killer French literary twists. With this new fiction she has now ventured to the other side – the world of fantasy. I’ve read some interviews that Barbery has recently carried out, a rareness in itself as she likes to keep herself private, and she admits she didn’t even think of the story as having a fantastical element as she was writing it, she was simply telling the tale.
From the get go I found that I was having to really focus on every sentence, every word, in this book. The story did not simply wash over me, streaming off the page and pooling into my imagination. With The Life of Elves I had to work, sometimes breaking a sentence down to rebuild it again into the narrative structure I was forming in my head. This is in no way a critisicm, I thoroughly enjoy a book that requires effort back on my half and in this case found I reaped rewards ten fold, I think I too often slip into fiction that doesn’t challenge me and it is good to give that old grey matter a work out from time to time!
The story tells us of two young foundling girls. The first is Maria, left in a small French village she has been raised by a loving couple and the small community around her. Since her arrival the bounty provided by the land to those who tend it has been plentiful, the seasons have been textbook with Autumn showers arriving on the exact day for fruit to flourish. The villagers all have suspicions that these blessings are connected with the young girl and they repay their respects the her and the land by providing for her and never taking more than is necessary to get by. Maria spends her days outside amongst the fields, trees and wildlife, with which she feels such a bond she communicates with all three in her own unique way.
We are then taken further south and into Italy, where our second foundling, Clara, has been brought from Spain. The reason for her move? Well, placed in front of a piano one day by the local priest she quickly left all in the room with open jaws as she began to play with an innate and magical talent. She has been sent to stay and play/train with the Maestro, a guiding presence who encourages her to not just listen to the music she is playing but to feel for the story.
The fate of the two girls is of course intertwined and we realise this at the same time as Clara, while she is sat at her piano. Playing through the sheets of music she finds she can see visions of Maria, as she watches her climb trees and share meals with those who live in the village, she also begins to learn that Maria and those around her are in danger as an enemy is making its way to destroy the way of life they know and love. The War that is coming to the land is not a one that can be fought by man alone and slowly we unravel that there is more to those we are reading about than meets the eye. Bridges are being built from out of the mist and the two girls are offered up as the hope to save the world as they have known it.
As mentioned above I did find I had to work at parts of this novel, often when more otherworldly moments were being described, but then I often came across passages that all but sung to me. Barbery has a sensuous and evocative way of describing the food offered up as an act of love and also the women of the small French community. She makes it clear that the women are the very lifeblood that hold these people together by the spaces they make and with the love they then fill them with. One of my favourite elements of this book were the strong older women who have been through so much, including previous wars, and the fierce protection they will offer up for those they love.
The novel almost reads as a love song to nature and the land, I could hear the warning lurking behind every sentence of what a great cost it would be to those who neglect and abuse the Earth that provides and looks after us so well if we respect it. And again I come back to that word love, the love in the community, love of the land and then the love between a man and woman. I fell in love when reading a passage describing how for a couple life can be difficult, work is hard and the road will take unexpected turns and twists, but when those in love lie quietly together at night, they share their strength and provide the other with what they need to keep on placing one foot in front of each other on the journey.
I read a lot of books as you, dear regulars, know and this was the first time in a long time I felt truly challenged and woken up by a book. I can’t deny that I did struggle in sections but there was absolute delight to be found as I crossed over those bridges and came out of the mist.
The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery £12.99 (Gallic Books)