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Likely Stories: The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery


Enchanting, beautifully written tale of elves living amongst mere mortals.

I'm Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

After breakfast one morning, I sat down to read Muriel Barbery’s latest novel, The Life of Elves.  I could not stop until I passed well over 100 pages.  I was enthralled.  My heart is firmly in the 19th century, so I love the detailed descriptions of landscapes, pastoral scenes, and peasants.  Imagine a painting in gallery.  I see some figures, some color, some light, but it doesn’t move me.  Then I see Monet’s “Haystacks,” and I am driven to tears.  Likewise, every once in a great while, a wonderful novel comes along that moves me on so many levels.  Barbery’s story is one of those.  I hear the voices, the wind, and the rain beating on the thatched roofs. 

Muriel Barbery was born in Morocco, but her family left for France when she was only two months old.  She studied there and received a certificate for entry into government service in 1990.  In 1993, she taught Philosophy in several colleges.  She gave up teaching and lived for two years in Japan.  Muriel has written two previous novels, including the internationally renowned The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

The Life of Elves is a lyrical, mesmerizing story of discord among living beings.  The war this launches upsets the balance of nature.  Two young women – one born in Spain and the other in Italy – possess magical powers, which allow them to resist the encroaching army.  The Italian girl, Clara, possesses a mystical power to hear music and visualize the notes.  She plays the most complicated pieces with almost no training.  The Spanish girl, Maria, who moves to France, is able to understand and communicate with nature.  As the children develop their talents, they are able to see, hear, and communicate with each other.

Barbery writes, “There was a fallow field, overgrown with sleek serried blades of grass, rising gently to meet the hill through a winding passage, until it reached a lovely stand of poplar trees rich with strawberries and a carpet of periwinkles where not so long ago every family was permitted to gather wood, and would commence with the sawing by first snowfall; alas that era is gone now, but it will not be spoken of today, be it due to sorrow or forgetfulness, or because at this hour the little girl is running to meet her destiny, holding tight to the giant paw of a wild boar.  // And this on the mildest autumn evening anyone had seen for many a year.  Folk had delayed putting their apples and pears to ripen on the wooden racks in the cellar, and all day long the air was streaked with insects inebriated with the finest orchard vintage”  (19-20). 

Throughout the novel, Barbery has sprinkled some wonderful moments.  For example, when Maria approaches a table, she slightly moves a piece of garlic.  Some pages later, Barbery explains, “The paths of fate: a garlic clove moved one millimeter and the world is utterly changed; the slightest shift disturbs the secret position of our emotions and yet it transforms our lives forever” (114).

The Life of Elves by Muriel Barbery will give the reader pause to stop – on almost every page – to consider her words, to wonder at the beauty and timelessness of her prose.  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Check out my new blog at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and HAPPY READING!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.