Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: Fiction: Peaches for Monsieur le Cure by Joanne Harris

Doubleday, £18.99, hbk, 464 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie or by calling 091 709350

A decade ago, thousands of readers were captivated by Joanne Harris's magical tale of Vianne Rocher and her chocolate shop.

Chocolat was set in a fictional village of south-west France (although this didn't stop many people writing to Harris to claim that they had been to Lansquenet).

Vianne and her daughter Anouk had scandalised the local community, particularly the priest, Francis Reynaud, by selling her mouth-watering confections at the start of Lent.

The novel was a runaway word-of-mouth hit. A year later, Harris won even more fans when Chocolat was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche as Vianne and, in an inspired piece of casting, Johnny Depp starred as the gypsy Roux, the love of her life. The book was subsequently translated into 50 languages.

Although Harris revisited Vianne's story in The Lollipop Shoes, a novel set in Paris four years after Chocolat, she would go on to explore far darker territories in Gentleman & Players, a menacing tale of public-school days, and in the experimental blueeyedboy.

The latter, published last year, certainly isn't a feel-good read; written in the form of a web journal by a murderous loner, it was a world away from the pastoral French environment of Chocolat.

Yet it seems Harris was not quite finished with Vianne's story. The author has returned to the world that made her famous in Peaches for Monsieur le Cure.

Vianne is living on a houseboat in the French capital when she receives a letter from a ghost. In it, her old friend Armande asks her to return to Lansquenet. Although Roux is reluctant to revisit old haunts, Vianne feels compelled to follow Armande's wishes.

Along with 15-year-old Anouk and four-year-old Rosette, Vianne travels to the village to discover much has changed in their eight-year absence.

The realities of 21st-Century politics has caused upheaval. A community of Moroccans has moved to the village and its cultural mix has brought profound change.

While some in Lansquenet welcome this new cosmopolitan era, others are not so sanguine and relations between the two communities have soured.

Vianne's old foe, the priest Reynaud, is not untouched by the developments. He has been accused of setting fire to the old chocolate shop, now a school run by the mysterious and niqub-wearing Ines Bencharki.

Bencharki's chilly demeanour has alienated many of the villagers, who see her as a troublemaker, increasing tensions between the locals and the new arrivals. And even within the Arab community, Ines's relationship with the charismatic and newly married Karim is a source of much controversy.

Harris has set this story at the start of Ramadan, just before France banned the wearing of the Islamic veil, and, indeed, this gives the novel a much more contemporary feel than its predecessors.

But Chocolat fans can rest easy. Harris may have moved on, but Vianne's magic has not dimmed and the latest installment certainly casts a spell.

Peaches for Monsieur le Cure is not another Chocolat but, readers, prepare to be charmed.

And this reader would certainly not be surprised if Vianne had another story to tell.

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