Fiction – hardcover; Doubleday; 479 pages; 2002.
Joanne Harris‘s thematic explorations of the world of chocolate in Chocolat, wine-making in Blackberry Wine and French crepes and other baked treats in Five Quarters of the Orange have earned her a loyal following of culinary-loving readers. Such readers will, therefore, find Harris’s latest novel, Coastliners, a somewhat surprising departure from the norm.
Swapping food for a marine theme, Harris sets her story on the sparsely populated Breton island of Le Devin, where local girl Mado returns after a ten-year absence. Instead of the happy home-coming she had expected, Mado finds that her ageing father, GrosJean, is uncommunicative and seemingly overwhelmed by a depression that he cannot shrug off.
Similarly, her local village, Les Salants, rundown and impoverished, is threatened by the machinations of local entrepreneur, Claude Brismand. The locals, whose lives are controlled by tradition and superstition, have given up hope for the future as they watch their livelihoods disappear and their tourist trade being taken over by the wealthier community of nearby La Houssiniere.
It is Mado who comes up with a plan to reverse Le Salants’s fortunes. Drawing upon the help of Flynn, a mysterious English drifter who has set up camp on the island, she encourages the local villagers to fight for their community. But their efforts are soon thwarted by Brismand, who uses not only his wealth but his family connections to further his own interests. His underhand methods prove incredibly testing of Mado’s determination and strength of character.
At its most basic level Coastliners is a story about good versus evil. But it’s also about the battle between conserving and protecting the fragile coastal environment against the desire for economic growth and development as well as the fight to preserve a traditional way of life in a constantly changing world.
Similarly, Harris explores the frictions between local communities, the disputes between families and the sometimes complicated rivalries between siblings. But her characters — of which there is a “cast of thousands” — tend to be cliched and slightly two- dimensional.
The writing, on occasions, seems formulaic and forced, particularly when Harris is creating “back story” or trying to move the plot forward too quickly. At other times her descriptions of the marine environment are breathtaking in their vividness. Pages cluttered with coastal imagery bring the beach and the sea alive, even when she isn’t talking directly about the ocean. For instance, she describes the body of a drowned man as “smooth and featureless as a skinned seal” and the arrival of evening as “night showing its single black sail”. Mostly, she talks about tides and marine weather conditions, fishing vessels and sandy beaches in the same confident and richly evocative way she wrote about food and drink in her previous novels.
But whether readers of those past successes will appreciate the switch in Harris’s thematic musings is another thing entirely. Personally, I missed the mouthwatering fare that characterised her novels but I also appreciate Harris’s desire to prove that she is not just a one-trick pony.