I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Anyone I’ve ever talked to about The Elegance of the Hedgehog loved it too. And yet, Muriel Barbery’s third novel The Life of Elves is a literary calamity.
I am two-thirds through this book but I realised this weekend that the avoidance techniques I’ve employed to not finish this book (‘hmm… I’ll just read this real estate magazine again’) have won out. The Life of Elves will go back to the bookshelf unfinished (Book I Forsook #2).
I can’t even critique the narrative properly because at no point in the 157 pages that I read did I actually understand what was going on. There were small moments of clarity that went something like ‘ah, yes we are in Italy again now’. But then there would be a chapter featuring a hare and a wild boar and I would be perplexed once again. On the upside, at least there aren’t any plot spoilers in this review.
In addition to the French/ Italian muddle of a plot, this is one of the most overwritten books I have read in a long time. The prose is florid and incredibly ornate. Every paragraph has too-long sentences, too many adjectives and unnecessary metaphors that at times actually made me wince.
The memory of Eugenie took on another dimension, as if it had been multiplied to infinity, inscribed in unknown spaces and times which his spirit now probed through the prism of the old granny and a land as harsh and limpid as the skies of the beginning of time…He had never viewed the world from such an angle as on this day of Eugenie’s funeral, an angle that was vaster and more open, imbued with the ruggedness of a terrain both barren and full of grace.
I did try to give Barbery the benefit of the doubt and lay the blame at the feet of the translator, but I just don’t think you could massacre a book to this extent in a translation exercise.
I’m really sorry Muriel, I tried.