A welcome return to the village in rural France that was the setting for Joanne Harris’s remarkable and much-loved number one bestseller Chocolat.
It isn’t often you receive a letter from the dead.
When Vianne Rocher receives a letter from beyond the grave, she has no choice but to follow the wind that blows her back to Lansquenet, the village in south-west France where, eight years ago, she opened up a chocolate shop. But Vianne is completely unprepared for what she finds there. Women veiled in black, the scent of spices and peppermint tea, and there, on the bank of the river Tannes, facing the square little tower of the church of Saint-Jerôme like a piece on a chessboard — slender, bone-white and crowned with a silver crescent moon -a minaret.
Nor is it only the incomers from North Africa that have brought big changes to the community. Father Reynaud, Vianne’s erstwhile adversary, is now disgraced and under threat. Could it be that Vianne is the only one who can save him?
I have enjoyed quite a few of Joanne Harris’ books and jumped at the chance of getting my hands on this. I love revisiting old characters and finding out where their various journeys are taking them and this novel is perfect for that. I enjoyed Chocolate very much and Vianne’s next story The Lollipop Shoes. This story continues on Vianne’s tale for years later when she is drawn back to Lansquenet by a letter from her old friend Armande. Armande has died and her grandson passes the letter on. Vianne is a little shaken by this blast from the past, particularly as it encourages her to return to Lansquenet and follow the wind again. But Vianne never likes to revisit the places she lived in and Lansquenet holds more than memories for her as it was the nearest place she ever had to a home. Armande calls on her to return as she realises trouble is coming to Lansquenet and evidently feels that Vianne is the one to sort it out. Vianne is not nearly so sure but can’t refuse her old friend so she, Anouk and Rosette travel back to face both the uncertainties of the past and the future in the village they last saw eight years ago.
Lansquenet, as you would expect, is both changed and the same. This is one of the things Vianne fears as she returns, the changes from her memories. The village and its population have moved on. Time has caused the young to grow up and the adults to develop and yet in far more ways they are still the same people. The village still has friendly faces and gossips, pointing fingers and suspicion alongside unchanged traditions. However there is a new Arab community at Les Marauds, complete with mosque and calls to prayer, ladies in niqabs and strict rules. But there is unrest within this new community which has grown to become separate from its Catholic, white neighbours. This time it is not Vianne who is the outsider in the village.
In Lansquenet Monsieur Francis Reynard has been ousted from his church by suspicion that he has been trying to harm the Muslim community and by a new, up and coming priest who brings a guitar and power point to the church. Vianne’s arrival shakes Monsieur Reynard and yet this time he feels maybe she is the one to help him.
I was drawn in by this revisiting of characters and the way that they have developed. They are still true the original and returning to the setting of Chocolat is exciting. The issues it raises for Vianne are easy to identify with, even though she has led such a different kind of life than most of us will never have. Vianne continues to be wise, using her special brand of magic and mystery to help and understand others. She treads fine lines, befriending some in the new community as well as catching up with old friends. There are demons of her own for Vianne to face, but I am not going to put in a spoiler here!
Written from the perspective of both Vianne and Francis we get to see the world from to totally different points of few that serves to keep us, the reader, at the heart of the story. Always knowing what both parties are thinking is fascinating. From Francis thoughts we see his good intentions and motivations, and through Vianne we see why his efforts produce so little fruit! The development of the relationship between Vianne and Francis was particularly well written, after all the water under the bridge between them, neither of them could have found this easy.
The novel explores many contemporary issues, racism, prejudice, intolerance and religious misunderstandings. Yet at its heart it is about people trying to get by in this world with their insecurities, differences and similarities. As always Joanne writes beautifully with descriptive prose that makes you not just merely imagine it but see, smell and taste it all as well. Her evocative style sweeps you in, the subject matter provokes thought and the characters jump off the page.
Verdict: If you haven’t tried Joanne Harris before you really should begin.
Reviewed by HelenTags: Fantasy, Food, Joanne Harris, Magic, Publisher- Black Swan, Religion, Reviewer-Helen Posted in Adult, Big Book | No Comments »