Sunday 18 February 2018

Fiction: The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery

Gallic Press, €15.99

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery
The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery

Anne Cunningham

I adored Muriel Barbery's previous novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog. But her latest novel left me confused and befuddled. A fantasy, in which two young foundlings, grow up in the care of their respective communities, it tells the tale of Maria who is reared in rural France, Clara in Rome.

Maria can see the other world, the "world of elves" through nature. Meanwhile Clara, a virtuoso pianist, can see visions of this other world when she plays the piano.

Both are destined to lead combat in a war between the natural world of which they are a part, and the Council of the Mists, from whence they came, which is populated by elves and also by hares, wild boars, unicorns … you get the idea.

While the language shimmers, even in translation, and the imagery is magnificent, I'm not sure who this book will appeal to.

The narrative thread is too esoteric for even the most devoted fantasy/magical realist fans, and although described in the blurb as a fairy tale, it is well beyond the grasp of most children - or most adults, for that matter.

There are allusions to CS Lewis' Narnia, with snow and forests and possibly with its own Aslan (or several).

There are echoes, too, of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's The Little Prince. But the charm of both Lewis' and Saint-Exupéry's fables lies in their apparent simplicity.

Barbery, in contrast, obfuscates and wrongfoots, playing an infuriating game of hide-and-seek with the reader.

Her celebration of art and music and fraternal love is obvious. But nothing else is.

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