In 1838, the French novelist George Sand (pen name for Aurore Dupin) decided that a winter away from Paris would be good for her, her two children and her ailing lover, Frederic Chopin, who had tuberculosis. The group landed on the island of Majorca, taking rooms at a defunct monastery, the Charterhouse, in the remote village of Valldemossa. (Sand wrote about their stay in a travel memoir titled A Winter in Majorca.)
This is where Briefly, a Delicious Life, the debut novel from Nell Stevens (author of the memoir Bleaker House), begins. “Of course, it wasn’t the first time I’d seen two men kissing,” narrator Blanca says in the novel’s first line, describing when George arrives at the monastery dressed in her usual men’s suit and kisses Chopin. “It was 1838 and I had been at the Charterhouse in Valldemossa for over three centuries by then.”
Blanca is a ghost, a 14-year-old girl who died almost 400 years earlier. She has lurked in Valldemossa, and in particular at the Charterhouse, ever since, pestering badly behaved monks and trying to protect her long line of granddaughters and great-great-great-granddaughters. But her descendants have almost died out, the monks have gone, and Blanca is lonely. When the Parisian group arrives, Blanca instantly falls in love with George.
Blanca has a very long memory, but her voice is fresh. She’s often funny, sometimes enraged, full of longing—an all-too-human ghost. She can insinuate herself into people’s heads and bodies, experiencing sensory pleasures like the taste of an orange or the feel of a kiss. She can access people’s memories and see their futures, which helps to give the novel its structure, as the story moves between past and present.
Throughout their haphazard sojourn, George stays up late into the night writing and smoking cigars, and Chopin lingers at the piano, coughing and working on his preludes. But unlike George and Chopin, Blanca knows that the conservative Valldemossan villagers are suspicious of the Parisian visitors’ unconventional ways, and that their visit may end badly. Along the way are sections from George’s memories, as interpreted by Blanca—a youthful crush, an early marriage, attempts to find her way as a female writer in a man’s world—and from Blanca’s own past, her short life and doomed teenage romance in the late 15th century.
Briefly, a Delicious Life is an inventive, imaginative approach to historical fiction, full of comic moments but also sorrow, violence and beauty. If the novel’s narrative drive is sometimes uneven, that’s a small quibble. Blanca, though a ghost, is full of life, a wonderful guide to another time and place.