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The Testament of Yves Gundron Paperback – June 1, 2001

3.9 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Set in an unnamed country, in a village called Mandragora, The Testament of Yves Gundron appears to be one thing but ends up being something else entirely. Narrated by a yeoman farmer, Emily Barton's debut novel opens with a description of daily life that sounds like something out of the dark ages:
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,
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.
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.

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.

From Publishers Weekly

Few emerging novelistsAor experienced onesAcould handle the kinds of challenges Barton deftly accepts in this triumphant debut, a charming seriocomic fable about the seductions and dangers of progress. As it opens, the novel appears straightforward enough, the document of a medieval farmer who recalls how his invention, the harness, changed life in Mandragora, where plowing is a new development and 20 is the largest number people know. But Barton is full of gentle surprises, and what initially seems a historical account, prepared for publication by anthropologist Ruth Blum, soon evolves into something more fanciful. Yves's wife, it turns out, has a natural talent for singing modern-day blues, and his brother Mandrik le Chouchou, the local mystic, often describes his travels to "Indo-China." Such allusions seem peculiarly anachronistic for a rural medieval land, and in fact, this society is facing a shocking run-in with the future and all its frightening technology. The brilliant maneuvering and unveiling of this collision is one of the novel's most surprising pleasures. Editor and researcher Blum, despite her best intentions, cannot remain an objective observer for long; in her footnotes to Yves's text, a love story takes shape that confounds local tradition, and as she becomes an integral part of the Mandragoran world, a magical combination of past and future is woven through the tale. For all of her storytelling prowessAand this book is exuberant with storyABarton's real asset is her febrile imagination. Mandragora's quotidian routines are detailed so convincingly, and so lovingly that the reader starts to resent the encroaching future, with "its hum and its terrible energy," as much as Yves himself does. Barton's intelligent and amusing facility with idioms and speech patterns rooted in Middle English injects a dynamic historical feel into her truly visionary project. Agent, Eric Simonoff at Janklow & Nesbit. (Jan.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Washington Square Press; Reprint edition (June 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074341148X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743411486
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,195,479 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Elizabeth Hendry VINE VOICE on March 24, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Most times, when I read a book that I don't really like, I will pretty much swear off the writer, but I won't do that with Emily Barton. The Testament of Yves Gudrun was ultimately a little too uneven for me and left me with too many unanswered questions; it just didn't make sense, when I think it was actually trying to. To her credit, Barton writes well, is imaginative, has a good ear for dialog, and has a certain uncanny knack for getting in these little zingers that make you think here and there in the narrative. The premise of the novel is pretty interesting. We read about a pre-industrial society that, we soon realize, exists in the current day. They are visited by Ruth Blum, a young anthropologist at the same time Yves invents a few technical improvements which begin to change their society. Barton also tells the story from an interesting point of view (instead of from Ruth's point of view, she tells it from that of Yves'.) But--there are also some problems with this novel. First of all, I just don't think the narrative hung together. It almost struck me as a first draft, one that needs a little work to become something wonderful, which was frustrating. Or perhaps it was a short story, that should have ended at page 30. Some things just made no sense, like why did Yves' wife sing the blues? Why did they focus on Ruth's love of toast? I also think this novel would have been improved with some research. It struck me that she just made things up about how a pre-industrial society would operate. The details just seemed a little too inauthentic. That being said, I think Ms. Barton is talented and will try her next effort.
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Format: Hardcover
I was mystified as to how something as innocent as a simple harness could change so much in it's wake. Barton creatively written story kept me guessing. The harness, a cornucopia of geometrically explosive chain reactions. Barton's choice of the harness which normally represents constraint has been directly juxtaposed into an uncontrollable unleashing of one event triggering another.
The book brings to mind Shangri-La from James Hilton's "Lost Horizon" and Lerner and Lowes' "Brigadoon."
I enjoyed the book. It is a good book for the year 2000. For each step we have progressed we have lost part of ourselves. We are no longer in turn with nature, no longer kind to strangers. We've lost the beauty and richness of our language. We lost the ability to share our good fortune with our neighbors. We've lost our roots, our uniqueness.
We still have wars, poverty, mental illness, and illiteracy. We have prolonged life at the cost of prolonging death. Basic amenities, growing with each successive generation, for some are never enough.
It's a good reflective book that opens one's mind to all that we have lost and have little we have progressed in developing our humanity. We have more but are less for it.
The San Francisco Chronicle Online Book Club chose Emily Barton's "The testament of Yves Gundron" for it's 1/16 - 2/19 selection. Please join us by chiming in our online bulletin board. We would love to hear any additional thoughts that you might have.
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Format: Hardcover
Ms. Barton has written a thoroughly engaging and involving story. That it is her first novel makes it all the more remarkable! The narrative moves so seamlessly from one paradoxical episode to the next that I hardly noticed how my assumptions were being challenged. The testament is both innocent and wise, so the reader cannot help but share Yves' delight, sorrow, pride and wonder as he observes and records the marvelous events of his life. The other characters who inhabit the world of Mandragora are simultaneously bizarre and believable. Some very funny episodes balance the underlying seriousness of the novel's dilemma.
As the novel moved toward what I understood to be the inevitable outcome, I became more and more reluctant for it to end. Despite the difficult choices she poses for her characters (and her readers), Ms. Barton has written a story that is easy and satisfying to read. I look forward with pleasure to her next novel!
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Format: Hardcover
Emily Barton sets her Luddite fable, "The Testament of Yves Gundron", in Mandragona, an isolated section of one of the Hebrides Islands off Scotland's west coast. Farmer Yves Gundron, the narrator, lives in a society so primitive that when he invents a harness that allows his horse to pull a wagon or a plow without chocking to death it transforms his community. After Yves shares his invention with his neighbors farming in Mandragora quickly becomes more productive. Next Yves devises a two-wheeled cart to take advantage of the greater load-pulling capacity of the harnessed horse. Yves' neighbors attribute his inventiveness to his grandmother Iulia, a stranger who washed ashore from no-one-knows-where.
Yves' brother Mandrik is the only Mandragonian in memory to have ventured into the unknown world beyond -- and he returned a holy man bearing fruit trees and tales of Indo-China. The reader must accept the peculiar lack of curiosity Mandragonians have about the world outside their tiny fief as normal human behavior -- a heavy suspension-of-disbelief burden to bear.
Yves and his neighbors prosper through the increased produce they can grow and transport to market in Nnms, Mandragora's only town. (In Mandragora, farm surpluses are apparently absorbed more easily than elsewhere) Archduke Urbis of Nnms encourages the commerce by enlarging the market square and starting a road paving project.
It seems to be the dawn of a golden age. Then a stranger arrives from over the mountains -- the first new arrival since Yves'grandmother. Ruth is her name and she speaks a strange form of English and wears strange clothes. (Her C.V. is eerily similar to that of Ms. Barton, herself) Mandragora will never be the same again.
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