Yoking Past and Present in Novelist’s Never-Never Land

The Testament of Yves Gundron , by Emily Barton. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 303 pages, $25.

Emily Barton, yoga instructor and first-time novelist, moves with the authority of an index finger raised in warning. When she demonstrates a yoga pose–even one of those origami numbers that require rubber limbs and one-legged balance–her gestures are effortless and succinct. On the page, she’s singular and bold, and what she writes boils down to this: Beware of progress.

During a recent afternoon class, as she cruised the fourth-floor Yoga Zone studio on Fifth Avenue and 19th Street, stopping to correct one student’s pose or to press firmly the shoulder blades of another, Ms. Barton kept up a steady patter, half Simon-says instruction, half tender encouragement. At the end of the strenuous 75-minute session, as her students lay prone, she sat on the dais and talked a bit and then began to sing. Her speaking voice, though calm and bright and bigger than her tiny frame, did nothing to prepare me for the astonishment of hearing a Sanskrit chant, hauntingly melodic, fill the entire studio, as if it came from loudspeakers hidden away in every corner of the room. ” Shantih ,” she sang, invoking omnidirectional peace, ” shantih .”

It’s a long way from the Yoga Zone in the Flatiron district to Mandragora, the time-warp village where Emily Barton has set her novel, The Testament of Yves Gundron . Ms. Barton has imagined a people who live in medieval conditions somewhere in a lost valley. Forget modern convenience: This is a village of one-room thatched houses–huts, really–heated by open fire. Loom and butter churn represent high technology. The people of Mandragora and the nearby city of Nnms have no knowledge of the outside world. Their ancestors, according to legend, fled Europe to escape religious persecution, arrived in Scotland, and then fled Scotland–crossing a body of water–to reach their hidden valley. Deflected by a ring of mountains, progress has passed them by. Mandragorans are true primitives, heir to the Judeo-Christian tradition, yet uncontaminated by modern culture.

We begin with a villager’s revolutionary invention. Yves Gundron, who has seen too much death (his parents and three of his four siblings died all at once of the flu; his first wife died in childbirth), fashions a device he hopes will prolong the life of his horse. He has what he modestly calls a “workaday idea, the kind a farmer like myself might have about his farming”: He rigs up a harness. “Before we had the harness,” Yves explains, “we would tie a piece of flaxen rope or leather thong around the neck of the beast, secure the two traces to the swingletree of the cart (which at that time had but one wheel, square in the center of the load), and hope for successful drayage. If the horse was strong and the cart half laden, the burden arrived with its bearer intact, but the more weight we placed on the cart, the more likely it would strangle the horse.”

This is all pure fantasy–imagination at work, embellishing anthropological speculation. And it’s appealing fantasy–appealing, especially, to those of us with a touch of the Luddite, or a hankering for the simple life (you know: the urge to husband the earth and make do with bare necessities). The more suspicious you are of technological progress, the more likely you are to step gladly into Ms. Barton’s fictional world. Is it any wonder that Thomas Pynchon, who has said No to modernity in myriad ways, blessed Ms. Barton with a blurb?

To me, The Testament of Yves Gundron appeals also because of its fictional daring. Mandragora is a welcome escape from the veiled confessions of your average first novel; also from the doggedly domestic fiction I associate, perhaps unfairly, with Ms. Barton’s alma mater, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Before Iowa, Ms. Barton graduated from Harvard College, class of ’91.)

The escape is short lived. Like a blast of chill air in a cozy cottage, Ms. Barton opens up Mandragora to a visitor from our world–a visitor whose story might have been written in any M.F.A. program. Two years to the day after the invention of the harness, a stranger hikes down from the mountains into Yves’ valley. She says her name is Ruth Blum, and soon enough we learn that she is an American graduate student in anthropology, and that her mother, who died very recently, used to tell her “story after story” about an island off the coast of Scotland–”fairy tales” about “the mythical village of Mandragora, tucked like an egg … [in] a nest of mountains.”

Fantasy must succumb, eventually, to the real–just as the primitive must succumb to the modern. Once you have a harness and a cart with two wheels, the rest follows inevitably: four-lane highways, clover-leaf exchanges, sport utility vehicles. And that’s more or less the plot of this novel.

The best parts are Yves’ amazed descriptions of Ruth’s modern gear (backpack, toothbrush, notebook) and her modern self: the smile (“a shock of teeth as white and regular as the pearls on the cover of Father Stanislaus’ Missal”); the handshake (“she extended her white, bony hand toward me”); the embarrassment of reflexive solipsism (“‘Excuse if I’m being stupid, but, Yves, none of this’–she waved her arms to indicate the hearth, our village, the liquid black sky–’none of this is for my benefit?’”). Going to Mandragora gave Ms. Barton a wonderfully clear view of contemporary America.

In fact, it’s her view of Mandragora that’s a bit murky. Here and there she summons up an evocative line, but on the whole, her account of this primitive place lacks the magical specificity that would make Yves immortal, make his valley our valley, and make The Testament of Yves Gundron a great novel. Also, if you’re irritated by anachronism and inconsistency, or if you’re the kind of reader likely to find yourself playing “gotcha” on every page (I was particularly bothered by Yves’ use of the phrase “slice of bread”), Ms. Barton’s book is not for you.

And yet the point of Mandragora (like Narnia, say, or Middle Earth, or Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry) is that it’s imaginary–a through-the-looking-glass world we go to when today’s world oppresses. Ms. Barton told me, “I’m interested in the places where the wires get crossed,” and that’s what her novel is about: the complicated ways our dreams about the past are shaped and shattered by the present. Though The Testament of Yves Gundron is imperfect (disappointing, even, in patches), it establishes Ms. Barton as a copiously talented, daring writer. She knows about the moments, sometimes thrilling, often sad, when the invented and the wished-for converge–or collide–with unbending actuality.

Like, for example, when you stretch and strain on a thin plastic mat in a yoga studio, your cell phone switched off in the gym bag you stashed in the corner. You listen to Ms. Barton, who’s saying in her soothing voice, “Just notice where the mind goes.” At such moments you might think of your own Mandragora, of the impossible peace that was and will be.