Author, Book review, Doubleday, Fiction, France, general, Joanne Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Holy Fools’ by Joanne Harris

HolyFools

Fiction – hardback; Doubleday; 430 pages; 2003.

I was looking forward to Joanne Harris’s latest fare so much I went out and bought Holy Fools as a full-price hardcover, something I’ve never done before. But I figured the enjoyment I’d get from her newest fiction would be well worth the £15 price tag. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

This book was incredibly disappointing. It took me a very long time to read, which is uncharacteristic of my past experiences with Harris’s novels — normally I whizz through them at lightening-fast pace, enjoying every moment.

By comparison Holy Fools was, at times, mind-numbingly dull. This may sound harsh, but I did try very much to like this book. On the surface it had everything going for it: an “exotic” setting (a remote abbey on a French island), an interesting historical backdrop (17th century France during a time of great political upheaval) and inspired themes (religious dogma versus witchcraft). But this was merely window dressing; scratch the surface and there was little underneath.

The characterisation resorts to cheap stereotypes and the plot was virtually nonexistent. The tension between the protagonist — Juliette, a one-time circus performer who takes refuge in the abbey with her young child — and Guy LeMerle — her ex-lover now turned charlatan priest — is weak and uninspired. I kept waiting for the story to go somewhere, for the characters to develop and grow, but this did not eventuate.

Harris may have built a reputation as a successful author, one of the first in recent times to get the “literary novel” into the bestseller lists, but Holy Fools is a disappointing edition to her captivating “series” of French books.

Author, Book review, Doubleday, Fiction, France, general, Joanne Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Coastliners’ by Joanne Harris

Coastliners

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.

Author, Black Swan, Book review, Fiction, France, general, Joanne Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Five Quarters of the Orange’ by Joanne Harris

FiveQuarters

Fiction – paperback; Black Swan; 363 pages; 2002. 

Reading a Joanne Harris book is like catching up with an old friend — enjoyable and comfortable. Five Quarters of the Orange is no exception.

Building on from her thematic explorations of the world of chocolate in Chocolat and wine-making in Blackberry Wine, this novel serves up more delicious and mouth-watering descriptions of food and baking set in a French creperie by the River Loire.

The narrator, an elderly French woman called Framboise, recalls her childhood growing up under the shadow of Nazi occupation. The experience in which her mother, an ill-tempered woman prone to migraines, is singled out as a collaborator, has forced Framboise to reinvent her past. But now this dark history, so carefully hidden, could be exposed by her nephew and his profiteering journalist wife who have their eye on their grandmother’s recipe book, now in Framboise’s possession.

Wonderfully written, seamlessly weaving the past with the present, and capturing so vividly wartime life and childhood adventure, this is a highly recommended read.