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Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog is translated from the French by Alison Anderson and is a gentle, artful, careful work of deep intelligence, empathy and beauty. It is told from two first-person perspectives: Renee Michel, a concierge at number 7, Rue de Grennelle, has purposely adopted the bland, ignorant outward behaviour expected of a typical French concierge, and Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old who wants to shake up the bland, predictable life of wealth and privilege set out for her. But both women are of unique intelligence, and they spend their quiet moments wrapped inside their thoughts of Art, Philosophy, and the Beauty of Life. Renee consumes Art and culture with fervency and passion that she believes is not her place as a member of the working class, and takes great lengths to internalise her deep respect and appreciation for the Arts. Paloma, who lives in the building to which Renee is concierge, wields an intelligence that is expected of her as a member of a wealthy, educated family, but she betrays it to no one and rebels through silence, carefully planning her ultimate rebellion: to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday and set the building alight. It is only when another tenant of the building dies and a mysterious and intelligent newcomer moves into number 7, Rue de Grenelle that Renee and Paloma begin to emerge from their respective silence and isolation to believe that they are not alone in their depths of feeling and thought.
On first glance these two characters may seem difficult to identify with, and on reading other reviews I have noticed an almost even split between lovers and haters of this book. I suspect that its lovers, myself included, enjoyed it because of the profound loneliness felt inside the deep introvert and lover of Art and culture, and this book became popular because of this. Thanks to its increasing popularity it has then been read by people who read books because of their popularity, not because they anticipate the camaraderie felt among the lonely and intelligent. As a result many people read it and hated it, bemoaning the lack of depth in the characters and the cliché that is the lonely, intelligent individual. While it is nothing new to be lonely and intelligent, individuals who have felt this way never leave it far behind, and reading this book gave me a quiet, thoughtful, beautiful corner to enjoy soft, profound moments of being that I have not found in many other books.
My only criticism is that, due to the generally one-sided nature of first person perspective, the peripheral characters are a little one-dimensional, particularly Kakuro, the main male character. I would have been interested to know more about these characters and their inner lives, particularly Paloma’s mother, father and sister. Her scathing commentary of their personalities and habits at times felt quite petty and childish (she is, after all, a twelve-year-old girl), but by the end of the novel she grows in awareness of her youth-limited worldview. Renee also goes through a transformation thanks to the gentle companionship and solidarity she finds first in Kakuro and then in Paloma, and her lonely, cynical and resigned worldview is suddenly full of love, friendship and joy. Every introvert longs to find like-minded souls who come and go carefully, with whom one can share the deepest, profoundest thoughts on life without fear of judgment, dismissal or criticism, and that is why I loved this book.
Renee harbours an interest in wabi, the Japanese aesthetic centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection, beauty that is imperfect, impermanent and incomplete, and this essentially sums up this work for me. It may not be perfect and it may have a slight feeling of incompleteness about it, but it is perfect to me because in it I found corners of quiet beauty and contemplation that, even after years as a reader and writer, I have found difficulty in expressing adequately and satisfactorily. I recommend it to introverts, art-lovers, and profound thinkers, and pray that the future lovers of this book do not have it tarnished for them by those who do not understand us.

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