Tuesday, 14 April 2009

As pleasing and complex as a really good truffle

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

The wind has changed direction, and it blows Vianne Rocher and her six-year-old daughter Anouk into the insular French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, just in time for the start of Lent.

But when Vianne opens a chocolaterie, bringing sensual treats to the townspeople, she finds herself in conflict with the curate, Reynaud.

And as he struggles with his 40 days of penance and denial, Vianne’s influence over his flock grows.

A very enjoyable novel – and a deceptively light one – that takes the classic ideas of the pure and the profane and gives them a few tweaks.

Joanne Harris writes with real zest of the joys of good food (not just chocolate) and company. In many ways, it’s a gospel of pleasure and of living; a hymn to the senses. And it is extraordinarily evocative.

You do need to suspend your disbelief over certain issues – the timeframe of the story doesn’t bear too great an analysis, but it does suit the subject and can be forgiven for that reason.

Reynaud’s form of his religion is obsessively about denial and control – and he fully intends to foist these on his parishoners (and those who are not amongst their number). His is a censorious and patronising concern for their wellbeing, nourished by his own agonising guilt; he looks down on them and has set himself up as being responsible for them, seeking his own redemption in them. And in attempting this, he loses sight of their humanity.

But there are reasons for Reynaud’s attitudes – just as there are for Vianne’s approach to life. And Harris’s strength as a writer is that she never opts for the most simplistic approach.

Chocolat is not simply concerned with the battle between pleasure and denial, but also with mortality and the question of how you live life – including how you die.

It’s about love and laughter, friendship and joy. About loss and longing, pain and fear, and the need to stop running. There is a belief in magic here – the magic of life and living.

Harris has created a really delightful – and remarkably provocative book. My religious mother disliked it quite intensely, although she won’t talk about it other than to state that simple fact.

And finally, there is Armande, based on Harris’s own grandmother. No spoilers here – but perhaps the real question that the book leaves you with is whether you could, or would, follow Armande’s lead. It is a challenge for anyone who has been brought up to view conformity as the only possible option. Live, says this book: live!

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