Katherine Times Wed 9 Mar 2016
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WEEKENDER WednesdayMarch 09, 2016 KATHERINETIMES 15katherinetimes.com.au BOOKS FAIRYTALE GLAZED IN GOLD AND GREEN FICTION The Life of Elves MURIEL BARBERY, TRANS. ALISON ANDERSON TEXT PUBLISHING, $29.99 Review by SOPHIE MASSON DONT YOU KNOW ITS MAGIC: Author Muriel Barbery has nurtured the sensibility to magic she had as a child. this is aworld that is removedfrom factual history but operates on its own intimate terms A FEW years ago, on an Arthurian trail, Ivisited the Morvan region of Burgundy, ineastern France. Radiating from the ancient hilltop town of Avallon once an important Druidic site, and fingered by historian Geoffrey Ashe as the real Avalon of legend we discovered a surprising area with an otherworldly feel, with its winding roads, deep green woods, mossy fairy rocks, healing salt springs and air of seclusion. It was easy to imagine the real Arthur and his men vanishing here, tended by the all-female order of Gallo-Roman healers at the Fontaines Salees; easy, too, to imagine that an enchantment far older even than them lingers deep within this timeless countryside. This is the area where part of Muriel Barberys latest novel is set, in that secretive, beautiful, green Burgundian countryside of rushing streams and deep woods. There are references to returned soldiers and the last war but these do not fix it in time, though it could be after World War I, or World War II. The vagueness is necessary, for this is a world that is removed from factual history but operates on its own intimate terms. Barberys portrayal of that world is tender and lyrical, and there were moments when I caught my breath in delight at a phrase or an image but, alas, the author so overdoes the gold and green glaze over the story that in the end one can only see the glaze and not whats beneath. The story begins with Maria, a little child of mysterious Spanish origins who appears in a blizzard and is taken into a local family. From then on, the village is blessed; the weather is fair, harvests are good, game is plentiful and a harmony settles over the little world like a good fairys enchantment. Or rather, an elfs, for soon we are introduced to the notion that the elemental beings known as elves are creating living points of imaginative grace to offset a coming war in both dimensions, the human and the elvish. Maria, with her natural magic is one of those points; far away in the Abruzzo region of Italy, another little girl, Clara, with an almost supernatural gift for music, is another. The two girls become aware of each other through dreams and visions; while the elves work through them to prevent destruction, in alternating scenes set in France, Italy and in elvish councils. Critics and readers in France have expressed surprised disappointment that this, Barberys first novel since the phenomenally successful The Elegance of the Hedgehog, should be centred around such fantastical, fairytale-ish elements. Its true that the French are not overly familiar with the kind of literary fiction crossed with fantasy that is exemplified by such English-language authors as Susanna Clarke, Robert Holdstock and David Mitchell. To my mind, however, Barberys earlier novel was a fairytale, despite its modern Parisian setting. What I found disappointing is that the crystalline quality so characteristic of fairytale is absent here, while fantasy elements elvish councils, the drumbeat of metaphysical war are undeveloped and maddeningly obscure. Instead of a grand narrative or a tale of enchantment, we have a confused, meandering, often absurdly overwritten story, which can still surprise with kingfisher flashes of brilliance. French-Australian writer Sophie Massons recent novel, Hunters Moon (Random House), is inspired by the fairytale of Snow White. IN SHORT with Cameron Woodhead and Steven Carroll FICTION Scary Old Sex ARLENE HEYMAN Bloomsbury, $29.99 New York psychiatrist Arlene Heyman is said to have been the inspiration behind a novelists young mistress in Philip Roths The Ghost Writer, a character purportedly based on a real-life affair she had with Bernard Malamud in her youth. Now she has made the transition from literary muse to author, with a lusty and fearless book of stories on the theme of sex among seniors. One plangent offering, dedicated to Malamud, presents a fictionalised version of Heymans side of the affair. Most of the stories here, though, are earthy and humorous, reflecting the persistence of carnal desire in the face of the decline of the flesh. Elderly sex isnt much talked about, let alone represented in fiction, and Scary Old Sex shatters the taboo. Its an unusual, wry and affirming suite of erotic fiction, steeped in absurdity and tenderness and all-too-human frailties. NON-FICTION Econobabble RICHARD DENNISS Redback Quarterly, $19.99 If it can be said that lead guitarists specialise in making the essentially simple look complex what of economists? This highly accessible and entertaining study, which concentrates on the language of conservative economics, dismantles the mumbo-jumbo that we hear all the time economists being likened to medieval high priests babbling in Latin to an illiterate congregation. And this doesnt mean the congregation is stupid, just that it doesnt speak Latin, the whole exercise being about control rather than enlightenment. Jargon free except when sending up jargon there are some great passages where we are given the official version of a situation followed by the plain-speaking version: markets responded angrily, for example, becoming rich foreigners reacted .... A sort of little red book we should all have.