Nell Stevens’ Briefly, A Delicious Life, is a novel narrated by a ghost and set in 19thC Mallorca, based on the true story of how genderqueer, bisexual writer George Sand came to winter with an ailing Chopin and her two children. They set up camp in a monastic Charterhouse, haunted by Blanca, who died in 1473 as a 14 year old girl obsessed with “beautiful men” – and with one novice monk in particular. Over the centuries, her taste has turned to women. When Blanca encounters cigar-chomping, pant-wearing George, she falls breathlessly in love, though, as she says, “what is desire without a body to have it in?”
First person narrations often deliver a close-up immediacy underlit by a subterranean suspicion that we can’t rely on one single perspective. With sweet and careful cunning, Stevens navigates the motives of this unusual triangle, George, Chopin and Blanca, by giving Blanca the supernatural gift of being to occupy the bodies and minds of those whom she haunts. Stevens is a graceful, generous and mischievous writer. George writes and defends the family from hostile islanders, Chopin suffers and produces his Preludes, Blanca worries over her painful past and present love for George. The passions and anxieties of this trio, and George’s children and maid who find themselves isolated on a island beset by winter floods, is delivered in sensuous and sharp prose.
Stevens presents taste – a mouth awash with orange juices, a kiss that smells of cigars – as a key medium in experiencing life and art. Hence, Blanca, on first hearing Chopin play, frustratedly, his music on a cranky piano, talks of how when you eat apple, you head is full of apple….
If we stop and pay attention, as Stevens and her narrator, do, we may find human experience to be thrillingly universal and permeable. But as the desires of Briefly, A Delicious Life, show, life is solidly unique to each individual, too. Fragrant and gripping, this is a piquant, exhilarating tale of love and longing. And, because we are vile readers, who appreciate the pleasures of tasting books without the trouble, on hot summer days, of concentrating too hard on all the pages, we bring you a list, below, of some of the deliciously Mediterranean flavours through which Nell Stevens tells her story:
A sprig of rosemary
Almond milk mixed with goat’s
Champagne (in Paris)
Truffles (in Paris)
Apricot ice cream (in Paris)
By Soma Ghosh
Briefly, A Delicious Life, by Nell Stevens, is out now.
Follow Nell @nellstevens
Follow Soma @calcourtesan