Imagine the time of my grandfather's grandfather, when the darkness was newly separated from the light. Society was only a shadowy image of what it would soon become. This was Mandragora before my invention and all that it set in motion. People spoke to one another, but their habits of thought were coarse. People lived in fear. Our forefathers farmed, but with great difficulty; a man used a sharp stick to dig a hole for each seed, and furrowed his fields by dragging his fingernails through them and picking out each small stone. Often a whole spring passed in preparing the ground, and families went hungry or died come winter.This is a world where carts have but one wheel, and horses choke to death hauling even light loads attached by a rope around their necks. Then one day Yves Gundron has a brainstorm and creates a harness that allows draft animals to pull the heaviest burdens without harm. Before long, his invention catches on across the village and leads to further improvements: ploughs; carts with two wheels and then eventually four; an increase in the crops farmers can take to market and sell; greater prosperity for all. So far Barton has succeeded in imagining what life must have been like somewhere in northern Europe sometime around the start of the first millennium, but wait! Throughout this bucolic narrative she weaves disquieting hints that all is not what it seems. Take, for example, the song Yves's wife, Adelaïda, sings one day:
Well, I love Yves Gundron,A medieval Muddy Waters? The introduction of the blues into the narrative sets the reader's mind to reeling; the sudden appearance in Mandragora of Ruth Blum, an obviously modern anthropologist from Boston, Massachusetts, is the crowning confusion. It is she who supplies the plethora of footnotes that grace the pages of Yves Gundron's testament, and she who inevitably brings about the village's fall from grace. For Mandragora, like Shangri-la or Brigadoon, is a place out of time, an almost magical locale just across the water from Scotland and reachable by airplane, yet wholly untouched by the modern world--until Yves invents his harness and thus apparently invites a serpent into his Garden of Eden.
Tell you Lord, I do.
Yes, I love my old man Yves,
Yes, indeed, it's true.
But the fact that he don't listen,
Lord, it makes this woman sad and blue.
Barton's novel poses a difficult conundrum and offers no easy answers: before the invention of Yves's harness and the arrival of Ruth Blum, the villagers of Mandragora led hard lives but they were largely unaffected by greed, envy, or doubt. Once the village opens itself up to the outside, it falls prey to all manner of ills. Yves's celibate holy brother literally falls from grace and into Ruth's arms; Yves's wife, daughter, and neighbors come down with the flu, a heretofore unknown disease; more outsiders arrive in the village, "mad with questions" and sending "beams of light tearing through the countryside and our homes, which brightness strikes terror into my heart." This, it would seem, is the price of creativity, curiosity, ambition--whether or not the cost is too high is something readers must decide for themselves. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
I wasn't sure what this book was about or where it was taking me, but as the plot unfolds I couldn't put it down and it's now one of my favorite books. Read morePublished on March 26, 2008 by Rather Be Reading
What a fascinating read! Emily Barton's novel is taut, intelligent and just really, really fun. It has some debut-author unevenness, but those bits are forgivable, as the... Read morePublished on August 22, 2005 by careless whiz
Emily's debut novel is startling, inventive and gives the reader opportunities to ask new questions and consider our own lives in the context of history and technology. Read morePublished on May 11, 2005 by S. Geyer
I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Barton's debut. It's a fresh take on an old concept, told in such a way that you don't want the story to end. Read morePublished on March 1, 2005 by K. Weatherwax
I found this first novel by Emily Barton to be touching, exhilarating, dreamlike and edifying.
The medieval village of Mandragora hides, relatively untouched by the passage of... Read more
I read this book because I had to, but I was suspicious from the very first pages. It has no soul at all: I have got the impression the author picked up the subject and wrote the... Read morePublished on January 30, 2001 by S. Beretta
I have to disagree strongly with all the glowing reviews. It's as if no one has read a novel before Emily Barton's and now they're all excited because they think they're reading... Read morePublished on January 20, 2001
A delightful novel full of pleasant surprises and beautiful prose. The age of invention (at warp speed), religion, death and love are themes that flow through this finely crafted... Read morePublished on November 26, 2000
What a fine book! Smoothly written, well structured, a challenging theme and a wonderful imagined world. One of the best books I have read in 5 or 10 years. Read morePublished on February 28, 2000 by D. C. Carrad