The Life of Elves tells the story of two young girls who appear out of nowhere. Maria is found in Burgundy in a snowstorm, and is adopted by a farmer and his wife. Clara is found in the mountains of Abruzzo, and is taken in by a priest. The girls know nothing of each other, and yet their fates are inextricably linked.
As she grows, Maria’s ‘family’ notice that there is something otherworldly about her, although they don’t sense the full extent of her ability to communicate with nature and the animals around her.
Similarly, Clara astonishes those around her as she shows her ability to play the piano as she had trained for years from her first very attempt. She is sent to Rome, to learn from a Maestro and hone her abilities.
But their lives are about to take a dramatic turn, and they are about to discover that they are to play key roles in a war, despite their tender years.
I liked the sound of this novel going into it, and yet I really struggled with it. It’s told in a very disjointed fashion, and the narrative jumps around both geographically, between France and Italy, and also in time, and it was a little difficult to determine the true order of things.
Additionally, I didn’t warm to the style of writing, and found that there were many unnecessarily long sentences, for example:
Now that the pattern of fine seasons had been recognized by farmers and churchmen alike, everyone could count on it serenely while contemplating the billowy snow which, that winter, would cover the land whenever they were thinking of going to fetch firewood; or while enjoying the many early mornings that were crisp as a cracker, dawn shooting its rosy fingers into skies more transparent than love; or while salting and preserving the fine hunks of game that seemed in never-ending supply; and when the villagers thought of all this, they never failed to nod and exchange a glance, before returning to work, without comment.
I found myself having to reread several passages, as I lost the thread of what was being said.
There is a character list at the beginning of the novel, and it is very much required. I found myself returning to it often to work out who’s who. This is in part due to the characters being severely underdeveloped – with the exception of Maria and Clara, you don’t really discover much about anyone. And as for these two young girls, their mysterious pasts and parentage is gradually revealed, although you don’t get their full background until the end of the novel. I thought that this might have been handled better had it been shared earlier in the story, thus enabling the reader to focus on the present, but that’s just my opinion.
I loved Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and so it was with high hopes that I started The Life of Elves. Be warned, if you’re reading The Life of Elves for that reason, this is a very different novel, and is written in a completely different style to Barbery’s wonderful debut. I found this to be a difficult read, and probably wouldn’t have finished it if I hadn’t been sent an ARC. Some people may enjoy it, but this just wasn’t for me.
The Life of Elves will be published on 3 May 2016. Many thanks to Jane Aitken and Gallic Books for the review copy.