01 February 2017

The secret to a good story

The elegance of the hedgehog by Muriel Barbery was a gift I received in Christmas 2014. I couldn't be more thankful. Each page was gold and upon finishing I vowed to hunt for more Barbery in book stores. Turned out she had only written this other novel, Gourmet rhapsody—which I didn't buy at the time for some reason.

Christmastime 2016, I saw her name again on paperback. The life of elves. Sold.


Didn't expect that a fantastical, dream-like tale would come from the same person who wrote a sharp, funny narrative concerning the everyday.

Muriel Barbery. The Life of Elves. New York: Europa Editions, 2016.


Thought of giving up on this book on several occasions, but brilliant bits keep popping up.
Her caste had betrothed her to the role of bored heiress, but fate had made a daydreamer of her, gifted with otherworldly power, to such good effect that in her presence you felt as if a window onto infinity had been opened, and you understood that it was by delving into yourself that you escaped imprisonment.

I find the narration difficult to follow. The poetry is too much. A musical line truly sings when supported by straightforward prose. But here, it's like a song full of counterpoints with minimal rest. I couldn't see the characters. The plot points are miles apart for a 258-page novel.

"You are good at telling stories." said Clara.
. . .
"Do you know the secret to a good story?"
"Wine?" she ventured.
"Lyricism and nonchalance with the truth. However, one must not trifle with the heart."
The chapters alternate between the worlds of Maria and Clara, two young girls (we're about to find out if they're humans or elves or what) that have a secret bond and are the keys to winning a supernatural battle.

The exchange above comes from the chapters with Clara. She is talking to Petrus, an amarone-loving servant who is gradually shedding light on her identity. If not for Petrus, I wouldn't have finished this book.

He is the only character who is alive. Draws intrigue, interest and sympathy. And it's true. He is a great storyteller and I wish he was the narrator of the entire novel.


The life of elves is part one of a two-part series.

In college, I used to bow down to Jeannette Winterson and Anne Michaels because of their poetic language. I still love Michaels as a poet, and I can still quote Winterson from memory (you are easy to love, difficult to love well), but now when I look for a novel, I look for an actual story to bite into.

I will still read the second installment of The life of elves. That's how much I've fallen in love with Barbery at first reading.

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