Posted by: Natalie | May 31, 2010

Chocolat by Joanne Harris

***** Post contains some small spoilers*****

Imagine a warm summer day, you are lying on your back watching the crystal blue of the sky, grass tickling the bare skin and the scent of summer daisies wafting up your nose as a bee softly buzzes around. Or, a similar scenario but sat along the bank of a river, toes dangerously dangling into the cool, crisp ripples of water while the sun drenches your upturned face, eyes closed to the heat, drinking in the day. Or maybe you are on the river being lulled and rocked gently and sleepily by a small row boat, slowly ebbing and flowing nowhere in particular.

This is what reading Chocolat is like. Gentle, relaxing . . . pretty. It lulls you along sweetly and gracefully without any danger of tipping over. Like the above descriptions, it is a pleasant experience but with that underlying feeling that any second the weather will change and we will never get the moment back – a small slice of peace and pleasure waiting for the sun to hide behind a cloud.

There are no real feelings of peril or suspicion or even peaks and troughs in the story, it is relatively plain sailing, pretty much just observations of little village life. It is a beach book. It is not hugely thought provoking or challenging but it is very well written. Joanne Harris has an unbelievable ability to write for the senses. Every page is filled with delicate sounds and smells that you would swear blind where actually in the room with you, almost taste them in your mouth. Such a way with words, it is very impressive.

As for the actual story? Its ok. It is a very typical yin and yang storyline in that there is a force gently swaying for good and one barely pulsating for evil. Vianne Rocher and her ‘Little Stranger’ daughter, Anouk, stumble with the wind on the tiny French village of Lansquenet. There is a hint of the Romany about this pair as they have traipsed Europe and America, changing their home with the change of each wind. In Lansquenet, Vianne finally understands the demons she has been running from and is determined to fight the “Black Man” face to face. In this case, this demon or devil or unknown evil has personified itself as the village’s curé, Father Reynaud.

Reynaud is a spiteful little man, quite detestable. He preaches the word of God in such a hypocritical manner, preferring his flock to live in mortal sin and danger than frequent the newly opened chocolate shop. He despises Vianne and places in her everything he fears, everything that undermines his authority, his power, his belief system. He is a strange little man that throughout the book inflicts large amounts of misery on himself in worship of his God, or maybe more through guilt.

The story basically surrounds the moral ‘teachings’ of these two lead characters; one understanding, helpful and accommodating. The other a narrow minded, power hungry cretin. The Chocolate shop becomes a huge bone of contention and Vianne struggles to be accepted by all corners of Lansquenet. Eventually, in the end we an accepting between these two unlikely foes (with the good being recognised as the stronger) as their secrets of the past are finally admitted to themselves and a fresh understanding of the world unfolds.

However, there are side stories too, as with any good story, that divert our attentions momentarily – in the case of Chocolat, very much needed in order to weight out the narrative a little. There is the Gypsie Roux who appears with his group along the river. Prejudice and fear in the villagers bring about a startling comparison with the past, as Roux’s boat is targeted by an arsonist. Reynaud’s guilty secrets are awakened by this event and his desperation to justify his teenage actions, send him almost to the brink of insanity, losing all moral conviction by the end of the book.

Then there is Armande, an elderly woman who bares more than one comparison with Vianne and her late mother. She is a wonderful character, rich and detailed. She is independent, abhors fuss as much as she does Reynaud’s church, something of a battleaxe – I think she is wonderful. Her story is a sad one, but again, it is this that prompts Vianne to reflect on the past and the messages her own mother left her with. It is this that makes her stand her ground and refuse to run any longer, refuses to change with the wind.

So, as I say, story wise, not terribly exciting. In fact, you may say it is fairly lacking in places. But, this is not a book dedicated to plot but a wonderful and remarkable wowing of the senses. Every turn of a page will make you want to be wrapped in silky, hot, rich cocoa. The words are wonderful and skilfully placed onto paper. I have enjoyed reading this book, but mainly because I have felt wrapped in warmth, and swayed gently as if in a rocking chair. It is well worth a read, but maybe when your brain is tired and needs a little rest-bite. It is not one to challenge, but it is certainly one in which to indulge and enjoy.

This week, I will mostly be reading Shiver by Maggie Steifvater.


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