Book Review : "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

Translated into English by Alison Anderson

Muriel Barbery’s highly acclaimed novel asks the reader to embark upon a fascinating journey along two interconnected threads of narrative - Renée, the main protagonist, a fifty-four year old concierge at number 7, rue de Grenelle, and Paloma, a precocious twelve year old girl who hides her sharp intellect behind a mask of mediocrity. The territoire narratif is familiar ground for readers of Barbery’s prior work - The Gourmet Rhapsody.

Renée has spent much of her adult life living in the shadow of a tragedy that has left her wary of the bourgeois and their glittering, yet empty lives. She lives behind the veil of “ .. a millenia of class distinction ..” concealing her autodidactic persona with a bucketful of concierge-clichés - fatty food, an equally fattened cat, a sour disposition, and a look of perpetual politeness bordering on indifference.

Paloma is the twelve year old member of a pretentious upper-middle class family (the Josses), who has concluded that “life” as everybody believes (or wants to make-believe), is simply not worth the effort. As a result, she decides to end her life by burning down her apartment while everyone else is away. A sensitive individual by nature, Paloma also decides to make her few remaining days on Earth fruitful by recording significant events in her short-lived life - “Movements” as she calls them - a task that also results in a series of “profound thoughts.” It is to the author’s credit that none of these so-called profound thoughts appear incongruent with the psyche of an extremely intelligent twelve-year old girl.

The story alternates between Madame Renée’s attempts to hide her erudition from the world around her, and Paloma’s journey from the dark despair of helpless indifference to the realization of what makes life worth living after all. The concierge’s world is shaken with the arrival of a well-mannered Japanese businessman (Ozu-san), whose enigmatic personality makes him becomes the topic of furious gossip and competition among all the residents. Ozu-san discovers Renée’s ‘real’ identity, and simultaneously kindles curiosity in Paloma, who finally finds a grown-up she can trust and look up to.

The plot moves through at a subtle pace, like the movement of Spring through an orchard of blossoming cherries. The subordinate characters play their part through superficially inconsequential events, which take on a very different dimension when viewed through the eyes of the two journal keepers. Between the lines, in the white spaces between the rushing stream of a very well-paced narrative, lies the real esence of the plot - facing our inner demons, reaching across traditional class divisions, and an honest, non-judgemental outlook towards our fellow beings. A unique blend of oriental appreciation for the finer moments in life and western pragmatism, the story transcends any attempt of categorisation into bookstore-shelves with its universal appeal.

Barbery’s prose (as translated by Alison Anderson) is in many ways a gâteau de chocolat, a base of dense philosophical ideas (presented as the two journals); imbued with a gentle metaphorical kick, and topped with a luscious icing of humor and satire in equal measure. Paloma’s witty commentary strikes a chord with readers of all ages. This is not a book for the faint of heart - do not look for the sparkling, poetic notes that resulted in The Gourmet Rhapsody - this is a much profound story that reaches into the very depths of our existence in an attempt to answer a long standing question - Is life really worth living?

Rating : 5.0 / 5.0