Based on a naive, book-jacket description, “The Life of Elves” seems as if it must have an entirely different author from “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” or “Gourmet Rhapsody.” Few authors make such a radical change from character-driven, subtle realism to full-blown fantasy; even fewer can execute that change successfully. Unbelievably, however, Muriel Barbery has transitioned from sketching the intimate story of a concierge and a young girl to crafting a magical tale without losing any of her talent for character creation or command of language. In “The Life of Elves,” Barbery again places young women in the foreground: this time a pair, Clara and Maria, whose parallel lives in a French village and in Rome quickly begin to intertwine as their respective magical abilities come into play. The fantastical paradigm in which Barbery places this pair is perhaps an even better venue than realism for the empathy and perspicaciousness with which she depicts the unique perspective of childhood. And so, despite the occasional awkwardnesses of plot and character that accompany a fantasy story painted with perhaps too broad a brush, “The Life of Elves” is an impressive first attempt at genre and a worthy display of Barbery’s considerable talents.
The storyteller-like narrative voice Barbery has selected is the wisest choice made in the composition of the novel and does a great deal to create a cohesive genre work. Even independent of its plot, the novel reads like a fairy tale: When she occasionally addresses the reader, Barbery creates the sense of a rich mythos and a universe rife with magic. In introducing Clara, Barbery writes, “Anyone who doesn’t know how to read between the lines of life need only remember that this little girl grew up in a remote village in Abruzzo between a country priest and his old, illiterate housekeeper.” Barbery invites the reader to be complicit in the magic of her story, to accept it as basic fact as one would do when reading Brothers Grimm fairy tales.
As Barbery draws the reader into the magic of her constructed universe, so too does she generate magnetism in the more banal aspects of her setting. In particular, her depictions of the bucolic French village in which Maria grows up are so replete with well-chosen detail it seems as if Barbery must have grown up in such a place herself. She describes with care each meal Maria’s four grannies prepare, each herbal cure they utilize, each of the basic chores their lives demand. Even Barbery’s language itself adapts to the rural setting: “There were a few months on the farm as flat as a loaf without yeast,” she writes, a simile that might have been thought up by one of the grannies.
Her main characters, Clara and Maria, are crafted with a similar degree of believability. Preteens throughout the novel, the pair view the world around them with the vivid imagination of childhood. Though the magic powers both possess likely do factor into their colorful views of the world, Barbery clearly does not care to define which of their perceptions stem from normal childhood and which are the product of their fantastical universe: [Inthis][SPACE] way, the fantasy itself becomes more believable. Clara is a preternaturally skilled pianist who sees landscapes and stories in everything she plays, and Barbery conveys these visions with lush description. “When she had played the Russian sonata,” she writes, “there had been a splendor of trees with silvery leaves, mingled with vast dry prairies where rivers ran and, at the very end, she had the vision of a rushing wind in a wheat field where the stalks were flattened by gusts before springing back up in an animal roar.” While magically endowed piano ability might grant someone the capacity to see such an image in a collection of notes, so too, Barbery suggests, could childhood itself. Maria’s imagination behaves similarly: “Someone was walking through the mist only a few inches ahead of her,” she thinks, “and this presence gave a strange tug at her heart, as if the organ were coiling in upon itself and bringing strange images to her.” The idea of a heart “coiling in upon itself” seems so novel, so strange as to necessarily come from the naive mind of a child; that Barbery conceived of such an image herself displays her unnatural capacity for putting herself in a youthful mindset. In “The Life of Elves” and “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” Barbery has shown herself to be one of the greatest writers of children since C. S. Lewis.Regrettably, the enormous success of the novel on the sentence level does not quite reach the level of plot. Outside of the day-to-day lives of Maria and Clara, the story that Barbery has concocted seems half-baked. One of the most fundamental demands of a successful fantasy novel is intricate and creative worldbuilding, and Barbery seems to have overlooked this crucial factor. The plot seems so secondary to the characters of Maria and Clara and the gorgeous descriptions of their lives that the moments when it comes to the fore seem only to detract from the novel as a whole: Barbery might have presented a more generally successful work had she abandoned the pretense of plot altogether. Nevertheless, there is a great deal to recommend “The Life of Elves,” despite its macro-level shortcomings. It is a novel rife with potential; moreover, it is beautiful in its own right.
—Staff Writer Grace Huckins can be reached at email@example.com.