Chocolat by Joanne Harris

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Rating 4.4/10
This particular Rocher is not a sign of good taste

I first encountered Joanne Harris novel in the early 2000’s, not due to the film with Judi Dench (which I still have not seen), but due to finding the first chapter in a pamphlet of extracts of fantasy novels handed out by a library service I belonged to. Even beside the eclectically weird selection of extracts, which ran the gamut from Philip Pullman and Eoin Colfer to Angela Carter, Chocolat stood out for its truly beautiful prose, arresting setting and colourful characters. So When my lady and I were seeking a gentle, artistic story to read together as a break from darker fantasies it seemed the right time for a serving of Chocolat.

The book begins as mystical confectioner Vianne Rocher breezes into the small French village of Lansquenet-sous-les-Tannes on Shrove Tuesday just before lent with her six year old daughter Anouk. Tired of the itinerant life she inherited from her mother, Vianne plans to settle in the village and setup a chocolatery, despite Lasquennet’s insular atmosphere and the stern disapproval of the village’s priest Francis Reynaud.

The thing that attracted me to Chocolat originally, and something which becomes instantly obvious from the first page is Harris undoubted mastery of language and poetry. Through Vianne’s perspective we see the small somewhat anachronistically old fashioned French village as a riot of colour and nuance, and the people who inhabit it as parts of a quirky, richly detailed tapestry. Harris also shares the gift of writers like Susan Cooper and William Horwood of being able to interweave magical description with actual magic, thus the descriptions we get of atmosphere, places, or people are always tinged with Vianne’s ability to partly see the future or read a person’s character or memories. This makes Vianne’s perspective a truly memorable one, both exotic and colourful, as well as also legitimately giving Harris a way to discuss character’s feelings (or at least Vianne’s perceptions of them), quite openly and honestly.

My only issue in terms of description, is Harris’s intensive use of French words and names for things, names she does not explain fully in the text. Of course, Harris herself, as a French teacher who is also half French is naturally fluent in the language, but to those of us who aren’t, a word or two of what pain d'épices is for instance would have eased occasional fits of linguistic confusion. Indeed I was fortunate to be reading the audio book of Chocolat, since trying to decipher idiosyncratic French spelling in a written novel would not have been enjoyable. This also unfortunately made several elements, such as the rhymes Vianne sings to Anouk, and several of Vianne’s recipes a little impenetrable and thus lessened the impact they had on the plot, which was a shame, since when she does take the time to describe, rather than name the goodies Vianne is working on it’s a gastronomical treat with even Vianne’s surname reminiscent of a common chocolate brand.

A more serious stylistic point is how slowly the book moves. Part of this undoubtedly is Harris focus on creating three dimensional and engaging characters whom we care about, these include the gentle old Guillaume, a man devoted to his dog, Armande, a forceful old lady who reminded me sharply of Terry Pratchett’s witches, who has a troubled relationship with her daughter, and wants to be closer to her diffident grandson Luc, and Josephine Muscat, a timid woman and kleptomaniac with an abusive husband.

The main problem with the book’s pacing however, is that of the second perspective the book is told from, that of Père Reynaud the priest. Where Vianne’s perspective is told in a richly descriptive first person, Reynaud is represented as quite literally complaining to a catatonic older priest, constantly bemoaning the sins of his parishioners and fearing the satanic influence of Vianne and her infernal chocolates. As the book began, Harris seemed to represent Reynaud as basically harmless, a breast beating pompous buffoon who I was sure would come around before the end of the book (indeed I gather this is what happens to Reynaud’s analogue in the film).

As the book progressed however, Reynaud gradually grew worse, psychotic, lustful, self-important, even directly condoning acts of violence (including Josephine’s abuse), all of it tied directly to supposedly Christian precepts.

Much like Tepper’s misandry in Plague of Angels, it becomes fairly clear early on that Harris does not like Christians generally and Catholics in particular, and is going to explain why in nauseatingly protracted and villainously self-mocking detail, indeed my lady noted Harris grinds her axe so much it seems to have gone dull. Of course, there are likely plenty of nasty, self-righteous, egotistical priests out there, and having one as the antagonist of a novel is not in itself a problem, it never occurs to Harris however to show us, even in such a rigidly Christian village as Lasquennet that there might be someone who is both a Christian and a nice person, much less anyone who remembers that Christianity’s founder’s most famous teaching was “love thy neighbour.” It would not have been difficult for a writer like Harris, so gifted at otherwise portraying likable characters to give us even one decent Christian in the book, much less admit that Reynaud’s church might include people other than its priest who might not be raging egomaniacs.

The closest Harris approaches to recognizing that Christianity might not all be self-importance and self-aggrandisement is a rather patronising statement by Vianne that “fairy tales should make one happy”. This pathetic attempt to mollify Christians however is severely undercut by the fact that Vianne has magic of her own, albeit magic with a rather diffuse origin, making me wonder what is or is not a fairy tale. Similarly, while several sources (including Harris herself), vaguely mention “pagan beliefs” in connection with Vianne, there was none of the intensive spirituality or even ties to basic beliefs associated with paganism, indeed the only vaguely pagan thing in the book was Vianne’s category mistake in assuming the origin and meaning of Easter were the same thing. Indeed, like many atheists, Harris talks quite freely of religious faith without once discussing actual spirituality, indeed it's notable that God (or even his Pagan equivalent), is almost never mentioned.

Harris herself has stated the book isn’t an attack on religion or Catholicism, however given some horror stories she tells about her grandmother (the inspiration for Armande), and the uncompromisingly negative portrayal of Reynaud, and Christians generally, even going as far as having Vianne equate him with “the black man”; a looming spectre of death this is difficult to credit.

Despite beautiful characterisation of sympathetic characters, its extremely jarring how quite literally black Harris paints her antagonists. Reynaud’s cronies are actually described by Armande as “bible groupies”, and embody every negative stereotype of small town conservative women you could imagine, while Paul-Marie, Josephine’s abusive husband is a balding, pudgy drunken cliché wrapped in a plaid shirt.

Though Christianity receives the most unexamined negative portrait in the book, it is unfortunately not Harris only major assumption. When river gypsies arrive, of course they are all hard working eccentrics with an alternative lifestyle and only the miserable gang of small town conservatives would be against them. Similarly, Harris shows a quite literal blind spot with Armande, who it is revealed is in conflict with her daughter because she suffers diabetes and is losing her vision, and so (apparently), must leave her house and move into an old people’s home. When I consider that my own grandmother was totally blind and lived alone for twenty years, this unexamined assumption on both Harris and Armande’s part seems downright offensive, especially when it leads to a debate about Armande’s right to die with dignity. Indeed nobody (including the supposedly supernaturally insightful Vianne), even questions the idea that Armande might be able to live independently let alone be happy whilst blind, never mind that anyone newly blind would probably be better in a familiar home environment anyway. As with her one spite fits all depiction of Christianity, Harris could easily have avoided this pitfall by simply giving Armande something painful and genuinely debilitating, such as Alzheimer’s disease, which would have been a far more reasonable ground for Harris argument concerning death and dying.

That being said, among the none vicious characters, Harris’ skills at description were still able to create some genuinely wonderful moments, such as when Vianne encourages the friendship between Armande and her diffident grandson Luc despite his mother’s disapproval, and comfort’s Guillaume’s distress at his dog’s sickness, since of course Reynaud, despite being a priest is downright useless at actually giving comfort to anyone.

Anouk similarly is that rare thing, a literary child who manages to completely avoid cliché and is just engaging on her own merits, not the least because of her beautifully described not quite imaginary friend, the rabbit Pantoufle.

As well as bogging down the pace of the story, Harris’ lack of ability to write antagonists without making blinkered assumptions also creates a major problem in terms of conflict. Whereas at the beginning of the novel we feel sympathy for Vianne’s fear of losing Anouk and the “bible groupies” accusations of her being an “immoral child” carry some force, once Reynaud has descended into the realm of out and out madness the idea that he might win Anouk’s trust seems further and further from the truth. Similarly, given that Paul-Marie is such an openly vile character it only takes some chocolate, comfort and confidence for Josephine to leave him, something which Vianne easily provides; never mind the messy, complicated real life emotions towards abusers that often make domestic abuse so hard for the victim to get away from, indeed Josephine’s transformation from scared, angry victim to empowered husband clobbering triumph is so quick it feels almost jarring.

Unfortunately, as Vianne’s problems melt easily away, Reynaud becomes more and more unhinged, running through madness, psychopathy, and finally at the novel’s end turning into quite literally the Grinch intent upon stealing Easter (though unlike The Grinch he has no development after this). Vianne meanwhile has not only shrugged off all opposition but has dipped into a complacency so uncaring that she offhandedly revealed she was possibly kidnapped by her mother as a toddler (without even a thought for her poor birth mother), and also casually indulges in a night of hanky-panky with a handsome gypsy, a handsome gypsy who’s with her best friend at the time. Indeed, not even Harris’ transcendent description of a starry night and a perfumed garden could save this last piece of indulgence from feeling rather cheap, particularly since I’m pretty sure people would feel differently were it a mail character having it away with his best friend’s girlfriend.

When the book ends with Reynaud’s humiliation (with of course a little direct offense towards Christians on the side), Vianne’s casual wondering about whether Reynaud was in some way meant to be her antagonist seems nothing short of vindictive.

Chocolat is one of the most contradictory novels I’ve ever read. Truly lovely description and characters you genuinely care about are dropped into a steadily curdling plot full of parodies of Christianity, unexamined assumptions and steadily deepening rhetoric. What begins as gorgeous descriptions of a small French village through the eyes of an intriguing protagonist and her charming daughter ends with the ever smugger cackling of a prop for the author’s beliefs glorying at the antics of pantomime villains. For a novel that promised realism, promised complexity, promised some degree of gentle character study, this was a disappointment in the extreme.

So, however colourful the wrapping, however sweet the chocolate on the outside don’t be fooled, there is a bitter centre of rancid preaching in this novel, together was a sickly sweet aftertaste of condescension, thus it’s not one I can honestly recommend.

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