Saturday 11 November 2017

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Barbery’s critically acclaimed novel focuses on the residents of 7 Rue de Grenelle in Paris, specifically twelve year old Paloma Josse, daughter of wealthy parents, and Renée Michel, concierge for the apartment block. Paloma’s narrative sections are labeled as ‘Profound Thoughts’. Her first section is deeply philosophical and it is startling when you realise it is a child speaking. She has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday and to burn down the apartment. She aims to have and record as many profound thoughts before this time as possible. She plays down her intelligence at school, fearing she would get no peace if she showed her true capabilities. In this she has something in common with Renée who hides her love of great literature and classical music to maintain the façade of what she believes people expect from a concierge.

Both characters are fairly isolated in their own ways. Although Paloma lives with her parents and sister she does not feel part of their world, considering their concerns superficial and shallow. Renée has lived alone since the death of her husband, and in her refusal to show her true self is alone in her interests. She does have one friend, Manuela, who works in the same block as a cleaner but who hopes to leave France, much to the horror of Renée. Things begin to change when a long-term resident dies and the mysterious Kakuro Ozu moves into the vacant apartment. He sees beyond Renée's façade and extends the hand of friendship, something which she struggles to accept at first. Eventually their budding friendship leads to Paloma and Renée finding kindred spirits in each other.

It is touching to see Renée’s confidence grow and with it her happiness, though it takes sharing some upsetting memories with Paloma before she is able to see that all she has believed for many years may not be entirely true. These revelations are an important moment for understanding her character and the reasons behind her forced solitude. It is also heartening to see Paloma blossom with her new friends, beginning to see the world in a difference light and questioning her resolve to cut her life so short.

An interesting, unusual book which will challenge the mind, make you smile, and at times frustrate. In parts beautifully poetic, clearly borne of deep knowledge, it will toy with your emotions until the end.

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