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From Barnes & NobleFuture Shock
Emily Barton's The Testament of Yves Gundron is cause for celebration. Original on any terms, as a debut novel it's a thing of wonder, with a setting and a central hook so ingenious that it just may inspire a host of knockoffs. It is also, however, a reviewer's nightmare, because the novel's themes are introduced and explored through the revelation of a series of shocking surprises. This makes for excellent reading: It is one of those rare books that is as intellectually stimulating as it is page-turning, and every reader is sure to marvel at Barton's ingenuity. But the fact remains that to discuss this book, at least one of the secrets must be revealed. If you're a stickler for things like this, read only the first three paragraphs of this review, then buy a copy of the book.
But if you need to know more, or if you're willing to take on faith that The Testament of Yves Gundron will be worth your while even once the main "hook" is revealed, read on. The novel is presented as an anthropological document edited by a "Ruth Blum," whose editorial footnotes (not as endemic as David Foster Wallace's, though there are a few pages with more footnote than main text) pepper the text. The idea is that she has found, or somehow produced, a document narrated by Yves Gundron, who, as the book's full title explains, is a "Yeoman Farmer of Mandragora Village." It doesn't take long to gather that the village in question, probably located somewhere in Europe, is an agricultural community that exists well before the onset of the Industrial Age, not to mention the current Microchip Age. And a reader who bothers to wonder about this "Ruth Blum" will probably conclude that she has found this manuscript many centuries after it was written.
The novel's early chapters concern Yves's invention of the harness, which helps prolong the lives of the village's horses and even allows Yves and his fellow villagers the luxury of naming them: "No horse before Hammadi had lived long enough to need a name. It was enough that God had given us the beasts to serve us; we had never spent enough time with a single one to come to know its soul." Yves's voice is full of archaic expressions, and he alternates, in these early pages, between an incredible enthusiasm for his invention and an ominous foreshadowing of the trouble it will soon bring. We also meet his holy fool brother, Mandrik, who is said to have traveled the world and seen its wonders, Yves's second wife, Adelaida, and daughter, Elizaveta, and a supporting cast of friendly neighbors and farm animals.
Then, in the midst of a holiday to celebrate Yves's invention, the village receives a surprise visit from a strange visitor, "clad all in black," her smile "broad and immodest," her clothes "some manner of men's black trousers so slender that I could see each curve of her hips, thighs, and calves, and promptly looked away from all three." Most bewildering to Yves is "the tumor that grew from her back, all reds and purples like raucous spring flowers, and sprouting everywhere shiny protuberances and black tendrils." This, we soon learn, is a backpack, and the visitor is Ruth Blum herself, an anthropologist from Cambridge. Heeding her mother's tale of having discovered an isolated, pre-modern farming community on an island off the coast of Scotland, Ruth has traveled to the island, trekked over the mountains, and found Mandragora.
The rest of Barton's novel concerns Ruth's stay with the Gundrons and the impact on Mandragora of modern civilization, which approaches both from within, in the form of Yves's continuing inventions (it's not long before he's invented the four-wheeled cart, and so on) and from without—first with Ruth's appearance and then...well, for the other surprises, you'll have to read and see for yourself.
Barton has engineered a remarkable setting, one that allows her to take many of the rhetorical questions bandied about by today's pundits concerning "the costs of technology" and actually apply them to a premodern village that is growing up, fast. One is left with the somewhat equivocal sense that technology brings positive developments and a terrible price as well. The one sure message of The Testament of Yves Gundron is that people will never be able to resist the allure of a better mousetrap. Technology buffs, fans of Old English, and anybody who'd like to meet a horse named Hammadi are invited along for the ride.
Jake Kreilkamp lives in New York City.