Friday, 20 February 2015

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated by Alison Anderson)

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: This 2007 French bestseller delights from the first page. Yes, it’s ponderous and introspective in its philosophical meanderings, but the characterisation and distinguishing nature of the storytellers cannot fail to charm.

Set in a well-to-do Parisian apartment building on the Left Bank, our first narrator is Reneé; the deceptively clichéd middle-aged concierge, who listens to Mahler, reads philosophy and hides any inkling of intellectual curiosity behind her pinny and misshaped slippers.

A second occupant of No. 7 rue de Grenelle is Paloma, twelve years old and determined to get no older. She intends to die by her own hand when she reaches the age of thirteen, because what it the point of life?

Their alternating thoughts on the French class system, snobbery, ascription of value, sense of self and relative complacency in their own intelligence are thrown into disarray on the arrival of Mr Ozu. When this cultured Japanese man moves into the building, their distanced disguises proved not to be as convincing as they thought.

This is a pensive, mannered and well-constructed novel which weaves a gossamer web around the reader, involving you in concepts and characters you couldn’t leave if you wanted to.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, The Joke by Milan Kundera or Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier

Avoid if you dislike: thoughtful tangents, precocious narrators and a total lack of car chases.

Ideal accompaniments: Jasmine tea, Brie with truffles and Mahler’s 5th

Genre: Literary fiction, InTranslation

Available from Amazon

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