Briefly, a Delicious Life by Nell Stevens review – on holiday with Chopin and George Sand

A teenage ghost observes the erotic and creative bond between composer and author in Stevens’s playful debut novel

Nell Stevens’s two works of nonfiction, Bleaker House and Mrs Gaskell & Me, are about her attempts to write, respectively, a novel and a PhD. The young author travels, falls in and out of love, and studies writers from the 19th century as she tries both to make sense of and escape from an uncertain present. Her own prose is frank and companionable, shrewd and funny, capturing the privileged peripatetic grind of the archive stacks and the writers’ retreat. The narrator navigates a path between an obsessive work ethic and a highly developed capacity for distraction, a scorn for the trappings of heterosexual marriage and a desire to settle down.

Stevens’s debut novel, Briefly, a Delicious Life, develops many of these themes. It focuses on 19th-century artists – the composer Frédéric Chopin and the writer born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dudevant, later known as George Sand – and is organised around a trip abroad, this time from Paris to Mallorca in 1838. The group of unconventional tourists includes Sand’s two children, Maurice and Solange, and Amélie, a maid who dreams of home. They stay in the cold, damp cells of the Charterhouse, a monastery once inhabited by a Carthusian order.

In the role of narrator, Stevens is replaced by a ghost. Blanca died in 1473, aged 14, and in the subsequent three-and-a-half centuries stuck on the island has discovered a diverting ability. “Once I’d found my way inside a person’s head,” she explains, “their pasts were right there, under the slop and tide of feelings on the surface, and I could see it all for myself, as though I was translating a language I didn’t know I knew.” Sand, Blanca learns, has survived an unpleasant marriage, which ended when she realised her husband “hates her because she is not a normal woman”, code for her preference for trousers. Blanca enters Chopin’s head and relishes seeing Sand through his lustful gaze: “the dark triangle at the corner of her mouth when she was holding a cigar between her teeth”.

Stevens is brilliant at describing desire. “I start to see things differently,” Blanca says of the moment her 13-year-old self became conscious of what might now be called a libido. “Previously uninspiring objects are transformed. Courgettes.” She began a relationship with a young novice from the Charterhouse, unaware of what would happen to her body and her life as a result. The horror of the novel’s most affecting storyline is compounded by the fact that Blanca alone will persist with the burden of that history for ever.

Employing an impossible narrator is one way to sidestep the pedantry that historical fiction can fall into. Nevertheless it’s jarring when Blanca describes herself as “neurotic”, and it’s unclear why she is not surrounded by other ghosts. Stevens is not a writer who worries about mechanics and fidelity to the historical account. Instead, she follows the story and what matters to the characters in it. Blanca, a mouthpiece for the novelist’s method, looks for two things inside people’s heads: “formative experiences and rude bits”. I was left with the feeling, however, that the novel’s heart ultimately belongs more to art than to love or to history. Chopin only really has eyes for his Pleyel piano, which is stuck in customs; there is more erotic charge in Sand’s solitary night-time writing, “the hiss of her skin against the page”, than there is in her sex with Chopin.

Much more than Stevens’s previous books, her novel makes space for the uncelebrated labour on which creativity depends. For the famous Raindrop Prelude to exist, Chopin had to find himself playing a bad piano in a Mallorcan storm – and Stevens does not overlook the opportunity to make of that moment a delicious scene. But she also adds that the prelude’s composition required a goat named Adélaide, hauled up from the village to provide Chopin with milk, and a homesick maid to milk it. Amélie the maid’s daily trials with this depressed animal are a subplot more striking than the composer’s familiar turmoil and bloody phlegm. With skill and insight, the novel follows Sand’s struggle to keep hold of her children, her romantic attachments, and her work, and shows that Chopin never faced the same difficult choices. It is telling that the gloves that protect the composer’s delicate fingers are made of kid.

Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is published by Picador (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Caleb Klaces

The GuardianTramp

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