I have had Joanne Harris’ ‘Chocolat’ in the TBR for ages and ages and ages. Why has is shamefully languished there for years? Well, it is one of those rare cases where I have seen (and really enjoyed) the film of the book first and so have had to wait until the actors and plot left my mind so that I could let the story and the prose work with my brain to create it all over again from scratch.
It is Mardi Gras and the start of Lent (so perfect time to be reading this book) in the small rather sleepy yet picturesque town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes when two strangers arrive on the change of the winds. From the moment they arrive Vianne Rocher, and her daughter Anouk, cause a stir with the townsfolk both with their sense of the exotic and the mysterious way in which they suddenly arrived.
Rather than attracting the locals to the mystery of them seems to repel them in some kind of fear. This is increased when Vianne decides that she will settle into the town and open a chocolate shop, right opposite the church, at the start of Lent. From here on in she becomes a symbol to Father Reynaud, the local priest and man many seem to fear, of all that is unholy and a detriment to the town. It soon becomes an unspoken war between the two that one of them will survive in this town and see the other disappear, yet who is good and who is bad?
I have to say that even though I had seen the film, though it has been a while, ‘Chocolat’ as a book was a whole lot darker and less twee than I thought it would be before picking it up. One of the many things that I admired so much about it was that under the tale of outsiders coming to a place, and quietly causing mayhem, there was the huge theme of people’s individuality and that being different should be celebrated and not ostracised, yet ‘Chocolat’ is also cleverly not a book that smacks you over the head with a moralistic tone.
The other thing that I really loved about ‘Chocolat’ (and again even having seen the film, which I will now stop mentioning) was the way it felt like a rather modern fairytale for grownups and also a book which has that delicious, pun intended, sense of the magical and the real merging and mingling without any spectacular fireworks or magic spells. You as the reader get to know Vianne rather well and yet, like with the town’s people, she is slightly an enigma. You find yourself asking, as everyone else in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes does, if indeed Vianne might just be a witch, or is it all smoke, mirrors and scrying in chocolate?
“I know all their favourites. It’s a knack, a professional secret like a fortune-teller reading palms. My mother would have laughed at this waste of my skills, but I have no desire to probe further into their lives than this. I do not want their secrets and their innermost thoughts. Nor do I want their fears or gratitude. A tame alchemist, she would have called me with kindly contempt, working with domestic magic when I could have wielded marvels. But I like these people. I like their small introverted concerns. I can read their eyes, their mouths, so easily; this one with its hint of bitterness will relish my zesty orange twists; this sweet smiling one the soft-centred apricot hearts; the girl with the windblown hair will love the mendiants; this brisk, cheery woman the chocolate brazils.”
Like every town anywhere Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is full of secrets and for some reason, could it be the scent of chocolate in the air or Vianne herself, it is in the chocolate shop that people feel suddenly they can share what is going on behind closed doors. This of course creates some wonderful off shoot storylines and some marvellous characters. My favourites were most probably Josephine Muscat; a woman under her husband’s violent thumb and made out by all to be a crazy thief, and also Armande Voizin; the oldest woman in the town who people have to respect for that but also think is a witch and elderly rebel, an embarrassment even to her family.
“’Well, well, it’s M’sieur le Cure.’ The voice came from just behind me, and in spite of myself I recoiled. Armande Voizin gave a small crow of laughter. Nervous, he?’ she said maliciously. ‘You should be. You’re out of your territory here, aren’t you? What’s the mission this time? Converting the pagans?’
‘Madame.’ In spite of her insolence I gave her a polite nod. ‘I trust you are in good health.’
‘Oh do you?’ Her black eyes fizzed with laughter. ‘I was under the impression that you couldn’t wait to give me the last rites.’
The final brilliant thing that I really liked about ‘Chocolat’ was that Harris, as you can see from the excerpts I have chosen, writes the book in both the perspective of Vianne and Father Reynaud. This gives you a really interesting double perspective of how they feel about each other and how they both see the people in the town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes from completely different outlooks. She also manages somehow to make neither party really bad, even though there is one side you are rooting for more than another, even though each one has flaws and rightly or wrongly sees themselves as the right party in all of this.
So are there any negatives, honestly I couldn’t say there were. I just really enjoyed the experience of reading ‘Chocolat’, I loved the characters, the slight dark atmosphere the book has that broods and builds and of course I loved the chocolate which completely takes over your senses, you can taste and smell it coming off the page. In fact maybe that is the slight concern with the book, the amount of chocolate that I simply HAD to eat, I had no choice, whilst reading it.
As I am planning on reading the next two of the books in the ‘Chocolat’ series, I could (if the books have chocolate in them this much and this wonderfully) end up the size of a house and be sending Joanne Harris a large invoice for all the chocolate I have had to buy for the cravings and the membership I will need for a gym afterwards. ‘Chocolat’ is truly a delicious book and I am excited to have so much more Joanne Harris to look forward to.
Who else has read ‘Chocolat’ and what were your thoughts? Which of Joanne Harris’ other books have you read and would recommend? I have a real hankering to watch the film, with a big box of chocolates, later – in fact that could be my Friday night sorted.