Briefly A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is an intoxicating debut novel, blessed with a brilliantly inspired storyline. Set in a Mallorcan former monastery in 1838, it tells the story of Blanca, the ghost of a teenage girl. Habit has kept her haunting its environs for centuries, measuring her days in the tiniest increments, ‘A pomegranate seed, nudged in the path of a sparrow. A spider scaling a pane of glass.’ This three-hundred plus years interlude is interrupted the day George Sand and Frédéric Chopin come to stay. Smitten by their creative, free-thinking ways, Blanca finds herself falling in love.Based on real events in Sand’s life, Stevens tells us of a wintry sojourn taken by the legendary French writer and her lover, Chopin. Frail and tubercular, the virtuoso pianist and composer has been persuaded that winter in southern climes will ease his symptoms.
Together with her children, Maurice and Solange, the unconventional family arrive at the monastery. Sand, famous for scandalising Parisian society, is dressed in men’s clothing and nonchalantly smoking a cigar. In all her years, both alive and dead, Blanca has never seen such a thing. She is transfixed with desire. A spectral existence has gifted her the ability to see inside people’s minds and memories, and longing to explore Sand’s psyche, Blanca visits her at nightfall.
Sand is writing at her desk, and in a novel that celebrates the sensory, this early scene is particularly spine-tingling. The only movement in the stillness is smoke trailing from her fingertips, catching in the candlelight. Blanca listens to the scratch of pen nib on page and moves closer.
‘I smelled the earthiness of her ink and the cigar smoke. Closer: her doughy, coffee-flavoured breath. Closer still: the salty skin on the back of her neck.’
Blanca wants to get inside her head. Waiting until Sand falls asleep, she slips into the writer’s dreams, memories and history, and from here on in, the story moves back and forth between the two women.
This is such a compelling and original read. An episode in the life of a famous couple, a story of yearning, unrequited love, and the burden of eternal lonely existence. It is also a celebration of artistry, Sand’s compulsion to write despite the demands of motherhood, and Chopin’s immersion in his craft, body failing but mind dancing with music.
In one illuminating scene, Blanca shares the realisation that music is the best of him, compartmentalised from his dying body.
‘It was where his loveliness resided. All his better impulses, his tenderness and sadness.’
But this provincial Mallorcan village is not ready for such a cosmopolitan and unconventional family. Tension and hostility grows, alongside increasing unhappiness from Solange, lonely and lethargic, she does not feel ‘well-loved.’ Their future seems uncertain, and Blanca’s supernatural abilities are called into play.
Clever and richly imagined, Steven’s first novel heralds an exciting new voice in fiction and demands reacquaintance with the life and work of George Sand, a woman ahead of her time in so many ways.
Briefly A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is published by Picador, 336 pages.