Monday, 25 June 2012

Beyond Chocolat

The joy of finding a new author to explore is never to be underestimated. I had a conversation recently with my BFF about Joanne Harris' books in the wake of my haphazard acquisition of the Chocolat trilogy, and she'd bought the latest of the three on the basis of it being written by Harris without being particularly aware of the connection - because she's bought all of Harris' books since Chocolat. And here's me just discovering them! That's OK, we've had similar conversations in reverse - one of them in the last few weeks actually, because somehow L.M. Montgomery's 'Anne' books had eluded her until now, so she's been on a voyage of discovery with those.

I loved Chocolat - as I said in my post about it, which you can read here if you haven't already. Apart from the fact that Harris is a writer with a wonderful talent for telling a story, there is a glorious element of play. It gives the book, despite some of the darker elements, a sense of innocence at times that is most beguiling. Moving onto the next stage of Vianne and Anouk's lives, that innocence is absent.
Lollipop Shoes takes place four years in Paris, after they leave Lasquenet. They have, once again, changed their names, Vianne is Yanne, and Anouk has become Annie. They have become three, with the birth of Rosette, Roux's daughter - although, that is not information Vianne has shared with anyone. The events surrounding their flight from Lasquenet, Rosette's birth, and subsequent arrival in Paris are hinted at, little bits here and there, enough to tantalise but not to make clear why it is that Vianne is just barely scraping a living in a tiny patisserie in Montmartre, Anouk is distant with gathering adolescent storm clouds and there is none of the lighthearted staring down of life's challenges that characterised them in Chocolat.

Instead of living the truth they lived before Rosette's birth, Vianne is trying to create a life that is 'normal'. Rosette was a sickly baby who did not thrive. Even now, she is much smaller than usual for her almost four years and she doesn't speak. She does however, have an imaginary friend, Bam, as Anouk did with Pantoufle. We find Vianne and the girls at a turning point. Their landlady, and partner in the business, has just died. The owner of the building, Thierry, is away on business can can't be at the funeral, but sends a message to say that they're not to worry, something can be worked out. At the same time, a mysterious stranger arrives, Zozie de l'Alba - quirky, loud, confident, charming and, above all, helpful.

This is indicative of the tone of this book - everything feels as if it's a back story. There was a direct quality to the story-telling in Chocolat. Lollipop Shoes is full of hidden messages, secrets, half-truths, and layers of mystery. No-one is quite what they appear to be - we know that Vianne is not being herself, and as a result, Anouk is being stifled. Thierry appears to be the consummate good guy, helpful when things need to be done and outwardly supportive of Vianne and the girls - in reality, he is a control freak; someone who, as long as he is in charge, can be magnanimous and caring. Zozie, who arrives on the wind - something Vianne is aware of but refuses to acknowledge - has an agenda, and her story emerges as a parallel narrative. Piece by piece, almost sitting in the same position as Vianne, we are allowed in to see Zozie's subtle, clever invasion of Vianne's little family, motivated by her desire to get hold of Anouk, Anouk who has great powers, although they are being stifled, like Vianne's, due to fear. Zozie encourages Vianne to go back to making chocolate, instead of the basic patisserie fare she's been struggling to make financially viable and slowly, the magic begins to have its effect on the surrounding community as it did back in Lasquenet.

When Roux arrives unexpectedly in Paris, Vianne's composure and careful construct is shattered. Unbeknown to her, he had sent a postcard to let her know he was coming - a postcard appropriated by Zozie. Now, in the mix of people working hard to preserve various facades, there are two who don't - because they can't - Roux and small Rosette.

There is darkness and real evil in this book, and for the first time, the nature of the magic that was just an undercurrent in Chocolat is spelled out. Zozie represents all that can be misused with witchcraft, while Vianne, Anouk and Rosette are crafted from very different cloth. Ultimately, the climax of the novel is an elemental struggle of good and evil, with some unexpected results.
Peaches for Monsieur le Cure takes us four years on again - I don't know if this was planned or not. Vianne, having reverted to her original name, and the girls are living with Roux on a houseboat moored on the Siene, still in Paris. Roux has built for them a compromise - from the houseboat, Vianne runs a small chocolaterie, Roux picks up odd jobs, Anouk is in school and Rosette is her inimitable, individual self - still not speaking much, but seeing... And then comes a letter from the dead - a letter from Armande, via her grandson Luc, telling her to return to Lasquenet, to pick the peaches from Armande's tree, to bring the girls, that there is a need for her in the village.

Lasquenet has changed, as have many areas of France, and this was a totally unexpected aspect of this third book. There is an air of the fairy-tale about these books, steeped as they are in magic and mystery, and to have that fairy-tale colour juxtaposed against the edgy politics of current multicultural issues in Europe was a bit jarring at first. Perhaps it's that while we see many of these issues played out in the news in big cities, we don't often get a picture of how the impact of the growth of Muslim communities within smaller towns and villages has been and continues to be.

Tensions in the village have grown way beyond those that Vianne experienced during her first time there. The Muslim community has grown, with many more people arriving from Tangier, and a mosque has been established in one of the old buildings. There are enormous tensions between the old villagers and the new community - but also, on each side of that schism, there are issues within the original village community, and within the Muslim community. In both, the original religious leaders are being usurped by younger, 'more progressive' men, and both the older leaders appear to be crumbling before the onslaught. People's perceptions of rights and wrongs within their own groups and across the cultural divide are being coloured by deeply held prejudices and fears. Vianne finds that while some people welcome her back, others view her with deep suspicion. She begins to question why she came, why she took Armande's letter so to heart, and why she ever thought she could do anything for anyone. It is the same insecurities that wracked her in Lollipop Shoes, reawakened when it seems that her powers are required, and those of her children are coming alive again in an environment they both love.

In one poignant paragraph, everything she has ever wanted but never allowed herself to acknowledge or - more importantly - really have, is summed up so perfectly. Well, I thought it was, but perhaps that speaks of my own yearnings, unwilling gypsy child that I am:
There's something very comforting about the ritual of jam-making. It speaks of cellars filled with preserves; of neat rows of jars on pantry shelves. It speaks of winter mornings and bowls of choclat au lait, with thick slices of food fresh bread and last year's peach jam, like a promise of sunshine at the darkest point of the year. It speaks of four stone walls, a roof, and of seasons that turn in the same place, in the same way, year after year, with sweet familiarity. It is the taste of home.
Ultimately, Vianne's journey back to Lasquenet is a means of coming to terms with herself, with who she is, with what she is. It is a means of coming to an acceptance of what her children have inherited and that she must allow them to be who they are. It is when she learns that she needs to be able to trust the people close to her, and let them in.

There are many small and large dramas played out in the narrative. She is involved in some directly, in others she is the catalyst, and in some she is more of a bystander. But they all touch her, and they all contribute to her understanding of herself.

These are exquisitely written books. I have been quite unwell for some weeks, and this past weekend was spent mostly on the couch. It was timely, perhaps, that I had new books, but I have to say, these weren't just any new books. As I said at the beginning of this post, finding a new author is something special. I have a whole new treasure chest of stories awaiting me from Joanne Harris, and if you've never read any of her books, I suggest you get ye hence to your local bookstore and add them to your collection!


  1. Hello, Kaz! Are you having a fantastic summer over there in your side of the globe?

    Joanne Harris is one author that I haven't read yet. I did enjoy the movie though. It was so fun! And I'm a sucker for movies where everything works out well for everybody. Also, it's set in France, and it has chocolates and Judi Dench! What's not to love? Hehehehe.

    Thanks for pointing out that it's a trilogy. But I think each novel can stand on its own, yes?

  2. Hi Peter,

    Our summer is well and truly over - and it was an unseasonally chilly one (poor Sydneysiders deprived of perfect beach-going weather for months...) Winter has struck us with a vengeance now - and the climate is definitely changing here, because it's very, very cold, which is not typical for this neck of the woods.

    The movie is gorgeous - and I always forget how utterly lovely it is until I watch it again - and yes, Judi Dench...what can I say?

    The three books are fairly self contained, although there are odd references in the second and third to those that precede them. I don't think that it would be horribly confusing to read either of them without reading them in sequence, but personally, I like the sense of continuity of reading a series - as this has become - in order. There is a part of my head that is fearfully logical in the midst of all the other random, arty bits!