The Life of Elves – Muriel Barbery

When you imagine a story about elves, you’ll generally expect it to feature the childhood fairytale variety. Little, pretty people who dance around the garden, cast spells and are generally elegant and lovely.

What Muriel Barbery does so well is cast elves in a different light. She invents a world where elves are powerful and mystical, but also walk among human beings. At first, it seemed like The Life of Elves was just a story about normal people – but as the story progressed I really appreciated the clever thoughtfulness that went into the creation of elves as a different species from what we expect.

In a nutshell: 2 young girls, one in Italy and one in France, are brought up by adopted families who know there is something special about them. Clara plays the piano with such magic and emotion that she opens a portal to communicate with Maria. Maria lives in the beautiful French countryside and is so at one with nature around her that magic oozes out of her and people know she holds power. Around them, dark forces gather with the intention to end mankind. Maria and Clara, supported by a council of elves, must work together, though they are in different countries, to fight off this darkness.

The language in this novel is absolutely beautiful.

Do you know what a dream is? It is not a chimera engendered by our desire, but another way we absorb the substance of the world, and gain access to the same truths as those the mists unveil by concealing the visible and unveiling the invisible.

I was awestruck by the scenes in which Maria’s old friend Eugénie dabbles with natural herbs and healing. Take this clever and amazing section that describes the spread of an infection:

The contamination had started in his stomach and in two hours had built a little mound of pus; then, pleased with what it had done, it had called on its legions to advance at once. His body had begun to undergo the ordeal that the gangrene had restrained until such a time as it would be invincible, and in the sudden agitation of radiating pain, had spread the decline beyond his vessels and tissues.

Gross. But well said.

There is a sort of strange detachment that I felt when reading this novel, like the author doesn’t get close enough to the characters for us to truly understand them. The only character I truly felt I knew anything about was Eugénie. This detachment kind of echoes the mistiness of the elven world – which is literally a land of mists. I don’t know what happens in those mists really. The elves talk and plan.

This is a strange book to understand, but certainly throws a different light on what we understand of elves. It’s a nice read, beautiful and powerful.

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