Testament of Yves Gundron by Emily Barton

This is a highly imaginative fable about a village called Mandragora on an island somewhere off the coast of Scotland that has been cut off from society at large for an untold number of years. The inhabitants (of which Yves is one) have remained stuck in a rut, with hardly any change to their basic ways of farming for hundreds of years. Yves and his brother (Mandrik) are considered weird and otherly for the fact that they think outside the usual traditions, yet it is Yves and Mandrik who ultimately hold the village’s way of life most dear.

The hardness of life in the village is all too real – horses aren’t named because they die so frequently, children are only named when they reach a certain age, and Yves himself says at one point “Wives and children are so fragile, how can expect these two to outlive me?” It is within this world that Yves manages to find some time to invent. His first invention is a harness for the horses – previously the one wheeled carts were pulled by horses with ropes directly around their necks. The impact of this invention is enormous – suddenly horses live long enough to be named and life in Mandragora starts to change.

Soon after this invention a stranger reaches the village from The Beyond. Ruth Bloom is an anthropologist from Boston, MA and she has followed her mother’s bedside stories to find the lost village of Mandragora. Following all the best traditions of her trade she tries not to influence her subjects, but it is not long before she becomes inextricably bound into the ways of the village…

I could go on about this book for hours… The imagination that has created the novel’s world is extraordinary – the complete otherness combined with the total coherence make Mandragora and its inhabitants utterly real. The beautiful density of the language is utterly compelling – every scene holds a new surprise, a new tiny detail or a heartstopping insight into the Mandragoran’s world view.

Ultimately it’s a fable about progress vs. tradition, about status quo vs. change and about the preservation of innocence. I’ve read a couple of reviews of this book that suggest that the author punishes her characters for not holding on to their traditions hard enough. I don’t agree, but then this book is very carefully written to ensure that it’s open to interpretation. Personally I took a much more optimistic view of it – the inevitability of change was perfectly matched against village life.

Whatever – I was gobsmacked by this book. I found myself reading it at every possible opportunity, overlooking other things to make sure that I could get another fix and immerse myself in the villagers’ lives. It’s whimsical, surprising and incredibly imaginative. This is yet another great book from Canongate and one that I can’t recommend highly enough.