“The Life of Elves” by Muriel Barbery

The Life of ElvesI’ve found a new writer to admire.

Cover overview:

An inspiring literary fantasy about two gifted girls from the bestselling author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Life of Elves sings of the human spirit and conveys a message of hope and faith.

Muriel Barbery’s new novel is the first of two books about Maria and Clara, unforgettable heroines of a world facing annihilation. Animated by a large cast of endearing characters, it is a timeless story about the forces of good and evil and a moving meditation on the power of nature, music, art, storytelling, and love.

When the harmony between living beings turns to discord, the seasons will be loosed from their moorings and the natural world thrown into disarray; human beings—no longer capable of feeling either empathy or enchantment—will abandon themselves to hate, violence, and war.

An epic battle between forces that wish to reestablish harmony in the world and those that wish to shatter it definitively is being waged on earth and in the mysterious land of mist, where the elves dwell. A ragtag army of rural peasants gathers in readiness for the fight—their weapons, an age-old kinship with the land and an affinity for magic. But humankind cannot hope to win this battle alone. Victory depends on help from the inhabitants of a world that is hidden from human sight. Hope rests with Maria and Clara, two girls whose prodigious artistic talents and deep connections with nature make communion with the numinous realm possible.

My thoughts:

“Indeed, I would not be surprised if, in the end, we find out that we are all the characters of some meticulous but mad novelist.”

I’m in love with Barbery’s writing. The entire time I read, I was wrapped up in her prose: I admired how she structured her sentences, the words she used, and the descriptions she weaved throughout. It’s all beautiful.

The story is about two girls who must strengthen their powers before an impending war upends nature’s balance and possibly end the world and all humanity. Through them, Barbery’s beautiful writing leads us to admire simple enchantments in nature and to realize that great art can be cathartic. I don’t think it’s possible to walk away from this novel not wanting to immerse oneself in nature and art. Barbery brings a such strong awareness to them through her characters that I felt as if I’d never truly experienced either.

Since I first heard of this book, I wanted to read it though I’d never tried Barbery’s work or heard of her before. I was attracted to the title. I thought this would be a regular fantasy genre novel about elves. But what I got was a literary fantasy novel that has such a strong dream-like quality to it that I’m sure many will label it magical realism. (I’ve realized many readers tend to categorize quirky fantasy novels as magical realism.)

That dream quality sucked me into to the story, which held me as its captive until I was shaken awake by the overwhelming imagery. So, as much as I admired the writing, I’m unable to say I enjoyed reading the book. I love the descriptions and will treasure some of them, but sometimes the imagery would leave me confused and lost in a scene, unable to imagine what exactly is happening. This occurred often in the battle scene toward the end. So many things were included that it was hard to hold the images in my mind and make sense of what exactly was happening.

I also think this confusion may have occurred because the characters don’t have much substance. Despite their backstories and influence on other characters and events, they seem more like representatives for ideas and concepts. Which is why the story seems almost allegorical to me. The characters didn’t feel real and so didn’t stand out to me. I had to refer often to the character list at the beginning because it was easy to forget who’s who.

The events also didn’t stand out, other than the conversations between Petrus and Clara. I enjoyed those. Actually, the only thing that kept me reading was my admiration of Barbery’s writing and descriptions. When the focus was more on what’s happening rather than the writing, I’d get bored, and there were times when I considered giving up on the story since I wasn’t invested in the characters or the plot. But it’s such a short book that I figured I might as well complete it. I’m glad I did.

“‘The universe is a gigantic story,’ said Petrus. ‘And everyone has their own story, radiating somewhere in the firmament of fictions and leading somewhere into the sky of prophecies and dreams.'”

Overall: ★★☆☆☆ 1/2

Much as I love the writing, I did not enjoy reading this book and since I read to be entertained, I rate accordingly. Would I recommend this book? Yes. I recommend it for its lyrical prose and for the story, as well, which focuses on familial bonds and the strength of community, admiration of art and nature, and the battling forces of good and evil. I borrowed a copy from the library and would like to get my own copy just to return for a sample of Barbery’s writing every now and then.

The book is of average length at just 258 pages but the descriptions are plentiful so it takes time to wade through them. If you’re a fan of literary fiction and fantasy novels, you might like The Life of Elves.

Quotes from the book:

“True faith, it is a well-known fact, has little regard for chapels, but it does believe in the communion of mysteries, and with its unworldly fusion of beliefs, it crushes any temptations that prove too intolerant.”

“Clearly, no human being had ever managed to touch her soul the way the mountains had, and therefore the snow and the storms lived inside a heart that was still equally open both to happiness and to the sortileges of misfortune. And now, the further they went into the city, the more her heart bled. She was discovering not only a terrain that had surrendered to its interment under stone, but also what had been done to the stones themselves: they now rose to the sky in straight, dull walls, having ceased to breath beneath the onslaught that had defaced them forever. Thus as night fell upon the joyful crowds drunkenly celebrating the return of the warm breezes, Clara saw only a mass of dead stone and a cemetery where living people went willingly to be buried.”

“…Without the land, one’s soul is empty, but without stories, the land is silent…”

“‘Remember the stories,’ he said as he got to his feet. ‘They are the intelligence of the world — of this world, and of all the others.'”

“…childhood is the dream that allows us to understand what we do not yet know.”

“Love doesn’t save, it raises you up and makes you bigger, it lights you up from inside and carves out that light like wood in the forest. It nestles in the hollows of empty days, of thankless tasks, of useless hours, it doesn’t drift along on golden rafts or sparkling rivers, it doesn’t sing or shine and it never proclaims a thing. But at night, once the room’s been swept and the embers covered over and the children are asleep — at night, at last, when we’re weary of our meager lives and the trivialities of our insignificant existence, each of us becomes the well where the other can draw water, and we love each other and learn to love ourselves.”


4 thoughts on ““The Life of Elves” by Muriel Barbery

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