Barton, Emily 1969–
Barton, Emily 1969–
ADDRESSES: Home—Brooklyn, NY.
CAREER: Author. Yoga instructor, 1998–; writer in residence, Bard College, 2003, and instructor in writing at the New School.
MEMBER: Phi Beta Kappa.
AWARDS, HONORS: Notable Book of the Year citation, New York Times, for The Testament of Yves Gundron; Fiction Prize nomination, Guardian, for The Testament of Yves Gundron; Bard Fiction Prize, Bard College, 2002; Guggenheim fellowship, 2006; received grants from the Ford Foundation, the Michener-Copernicus Society, and the Vogelstein Foundation.
The Testament of Yves Gundron, Farrar, Straus,& Giroux (New York, NY), 2000.
Brookland, Farrar, Straus & Giroux (New York, NY), 2006.
Contributor of fiction to periodicals, including Story and American Short Fiction, and of book reviews to the New York Times Book Review and Bookforum.
SIDELIGHTS: Emily Barton's fascination with Middle English and the literature of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is reflected in her debut novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron. Although the story is set in modern times, in an extremely isolated part of the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, its characters seem to come right out of the late-medieval period. Barton's novel features the fictional village of Mandragora, a place so remote that, when the novel opens, the native people are still using one-wheel carts pulled by horses with ropes around their necks. Readers then meet Yves Gundron, who invents a harness that quickly begins to change the lives of the Mandragorans. Soon, two-wheel carts are invented, and the local archduke orders the roads to be paved, vastly improving trade in local farm goods. But Yves and his brother, Mandrik, the only villager who has traveled outside the town, feel uneasy about these changes. The subsequent arrival of Harvard University anthropology student Ruth Blum seems to augur that other changes will soon come to Mandragora. Blum has come to study the Mandragorans for her anthropology dissertation. Yet, her presence there soon accelerates the changes sparked by Yves's invention.
The culture clashes between Blum and the Mandragorans supplies plenty of material not only for some humorous episodes but also for "an interesting exploration of the tensions that result during times of transformation," as Review of Contemporary Fiction writer Alan Tinkler noted. Ann Irvine, writing in the Library Journal, similarly summarized that "the best aspect of this well-written book is that it lends itself to debate—what is progress?" The Mandragorans enjoyed a slow-paced lifestyle enhanced by a close sense of community and relationship to the land, but not without its price. For example, Yves and Mandrik have lost many family members to diseases that could have been cured by modern medicine. On the other hand, the fast-paced, technology-oriented society that soon encroaches may bring a more comfortable lifestyle, but it puts the villagers' old ways at risk.
Blum, who has fallen in love with Mandrik, resists this unintentional invasion that has polluted the isolated community, but events conspire against her, including the crash of an airplane nearby that leads to a military investigation. Also, Yves's inventions lead some of the Mandragorans to travel further from their homes, where they discover towns that have electricity and other modern conveniences. Here, several critics found some flaws in Barton's concept. For example, even though the Mandragorans have supposedly been isolated for centuries, when Blum arrives she is able to communicate with them using modern English. Also, as John Crowley wondered in a New York Times Book Review assessment, why did it take the invention of the cart and harness to encourage the first Mandragoran to travel a mere two miles away to a modern town? "The story is full of absurd holes," Crowley stated, "and they all depend on Barton's decision to place Mandragora in our shared world."
Despite such problems, The Testament of Yves Gundron was widely praised by critics. A Publishers Weekly contributor, for example, called it a "triumphant debut, a charming seriocomic fable about the seductions and dangers of progress." "The author has serious points to make about the nature of humanity and the price paid in the name of progress," said Ninian Dunnett in a Scotsman review. Dunnett concluded that Barton's debut "has proved that she has both talent and heart."
Barton's next novel, Brookland, is a sweeping historical epic that recreates Brooklyn, New York, in the days when it was still a pastoral landscape. Prudence Win-ship, the central character, is born in Brooklyn in the 1770s. As a child, looking across the East River, she forms a notion that the souls of the damned live on the island of Manhattan. Later, she has a nightmarish, yet beautiful vision of a great bridge connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan. Her determination to make that vision a reality is at the core of the book. Prudence is revealed as "a thorny, struggling soul," reported Joan Acocella in the New Yorker. "Together with the book's profound treatment of the spiritual ills born of the Enlightenment, this wonderful character is Barton's main gift to us." Detroit Free Press reviewer Marta Salij recommended Brookland as "a haunting portrait of a woman who believes herself damned," and Jennifer Reese in Entertainment Weekly called the book "a rare delight."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, November 15, 1999, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Testament of Yves Gundron, p. 599.
Detroit Free Press, March 19, 2006, Mara Salij, review of Brookland.
Entertainment Weekly, February 24, 2006, Jennifer Reese, review of Brookland, p. 66.
Guardian (Manchester, England), February 24, 2001, Justine Jordan, "O Brave New World: Justine Jordan on a Dazzling Debut," Saturday section, p. 9.
Library Journal, December, 1999, Ann Irvine, review of The Testament of Yves Gundron, p. 181.
New Yorker, April 3, 2006, Joan Acocella, review of Brookland, p. 84.
New York Times Book Review, February 13, 2000, John Crowley, "Future Shock," p. 28.
Observer (London, England), March 11, 2001, Stephanie Merritt, "It's Grimm up North: Emily Barton's Debut Novel Is a Bewitching Parable," p. 19.
Publishers Weekly, November 1, 1999, review of The Testament of Yves Gundron, p. 75.
Review of Contemporary Fiction, spring, 2001, Alan Tinkler, review of The Testament of Yves Gundron, p. 201.
Scotsman (Edinburgh, Scotland), March 17, 2001, Ninian Dunnett, "All about Yves," p. 7.
Times (London, England), March 3, 2001, Victoria Segal, review of The Testament of Yves Gundron, Play section, p. 22.
Times Literary Supplement (London, England), March 9, 2001, Molly McGrann, review of The Testament of Yves Gundron, p. 22.
Emily Barton Home Page, http://www.emilybarton.com (August 31, 2006).