French author Muriel Barbery's The Elegance Of The Hedgehog was a surprise international hit. The story of a friendship between a clever French concierge and his tenant's daughter, the book was as much philosophical rumination as compelling narrative.

Barbery's latest, The Life Of Elves, is both perceptibly similar and strikingly different. Just like its predecessor, an intuitive kinship binds The Life Of Elves' protagonists. But these aren't characters from an inner-city tenement. Instead, they're foundling Maria and musically gifted peasant-girl, Clara who journey between rural France, spiritual Rome and an ethereal "elsewhere", Pavilion of the Mists.

What binds these women, and the wider plot, is a material and mystical understanding that ghosts - ancestral, biblical and paranormal - and a perpetual battle between good and evil are customary and accessible.

If this feels allegorical, it undoubtedly is. Those seeking everyday stories of modern hang-ups will find the book's fairy-tale elements off-putting.


But whether it's solving 10-year-old Maria's disappearance in a mysterious snowstorm or
navigating Clara's tutelage by eerie musical maestro Gustavo Acciavatti, aficionados of magical realism will be enthused.

Additionally, there's much to love about Barbery's unique prose. Her sentences are long, layered and circuitous, each often forming its own paragraph. Their impressive skill and sophistication also accentuates the storyline's antiquated, mythical overtones.

An adult fable, Barbery's new novel won't be for everyone. But for those who enjoyed Carlos Ruiz Zafon's The Shadow Of The Wind or Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, The Life Of Elves will be welcomed and savoured.

The Life of Elves
(Text Publishing, $37)