The city garbage truck goes beep-beep- beep when it extends its mechanical arm to pick up a load—it sounds like a spaceship trying to park. Only today the noise sounds more like music, because sun blazes through the slats of my bedroom blinds, it’s January 22 at 9:03 a.m., and though this quiet house rattles ever so slightly when traffic whizzes along the main street, I’ve just read a consoling book.
I am remembering Brambly Hedge Spring Story by Jill Barklem, a miniature book about some mice who live in a crabapple tree with quilts, blackberry puddings, painted teacups and pots of elderflower tea—clearly aristocratic mice in an English-countryside kind of way, but at age seven I was delighted by the labyrinthine rooms of the tree house, its enormous halls and passageways and staircases, and its storerooms of honey and jams and pickles—these came to me, in my middle-class suburban house, as consolations. Later, but not much later, Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret by Judy Blume came into my hands and I experienced for the first time the astonishing sense of my body launching itself off into another galaxy. All of our books offer us portholes into others, but it is the experience of being consoled that unites these two books with the book I finished moments ago while the spaceship parked across the street from my window and took the Spice House’s garbage away.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Europa) consoles every part of me that has ever felt both scorn for and satirical delight in the human world, where people tend to travel in their own orbits, defined by education, vacations and other confabulations, and where we are all so afflicted by our blindness that we overlook the most incredible members of our species. That is why fine individuals go about their daily lives invisible to the rest of the world, such as the Hedgehog protagonist Renee, the autodidact concierge, a daughter of farmers who has impeccable taste in Russian literature, Japanese film and French pastry. The biting humour of this novel, this stinging satire of contemporary French society, comes to us also through a suicidal twelve-year-old named Paloma Josse, who wears pink eyeglasses and can’t stand the pretentious members of her well-to-do family or the rest of her bourgie society.
Somehow Renee and Paloma meet; somehow a Japanese man named Kakuro moves into their Parisian hotel; somehow, after I have imbibed their conversations with themselves and each other, while the rest of the world’s traffic whizzes by, everything about the human world feels, if only for a moment, less alien.