The Life of Elves, the third novel by French author Muriel Barbery, is an enchanting and captivating novel that reminds us of the power that language has to weave magic. Written seven years after her previous bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, this book offers something completely different: a literary fairytale about the longstanding battle between good and evil.
This is the fantastical tale of two otherworldly girls, Clara and Maria, who are born to the world at the same time as a great evil. Clara, the daughter of a human mother and an elf father, is a musical prodigy, sent to Rome to study piano under Maestro Gustavo Acciavatti. The Maestro and some of his colleagues are elves walking in the human world, having taken human form so that they are able to prepare young Clara for what lies ahead.
Maria is an elf child, though she looks human, living on a farm in Burgandy, France. There, she is honing her own gift: that of communing with nature so that one day she will be the bridge between the parallel worlds of human beings and elves – the latter being a place called The Pavillion of the Mists. As Clara and Maria nurture their gifts, they begin to connect with one another, and as the darkness spreads across the lands they become more and more aware of the role they will soon have to play in stopping it and bringing about the revival of the elfin culture.
Barbery’s prose reads as poetry, her lavish and elegant descriptions asking the reader to linger on them, to indulge. As she sets the scene the author’s narrative enthrals and there is a reminiscent feeling of a Tolkien fantasy. While we are familiar with the basic premise, The Life of Elves is an imaginative and unique portrayal of an age-old war.
Like poetry, however, there were moments in which Barbery’s meaning was a little incomprehensible. Originally written in French, I wonder if perhaps some of her philosophical prose has been lost in translation. Or, could it have been that the author was trying too hard at being fantastical with the result sometimes being a little too abstract? When the narrative is grounded in reality, Barbery excels, but as she crosses over into the realms of fantasy, this is often when things become a bit obscure. And, while I might not have fully comprehended each and every moment, this did not impact on my overall understanding of events, or appreciation of what this novel has to offer.
So, reading The Life of Elves, I felt some duality, feeling both charmed and, at times, confused. This is a book that won’t suit everyone, yet I want to recommend it, if only so that readers can get a feel for the lyrical and philosophical voice Barbery has shared within its pages. Her lush language is a treat that will be enjoyed by those who enjoy the language arts, and her heroines are just beautiful. Brave in her bid to tackle a completely new genre, Barbery’s latest release has a lot to offer and is truly something quite different.