One of my more frequently pursued habits is the tendency to over-purchase books, largely a consequence of my visits to the various local charity shops (Oxfam Bookshop, you stand guilty as charged). For a bibliophile on a budget, the pull of a pile of £2 books is almost too much to bear. So it is with a painful inevitability that each charity shop trip will see me carrying home a number of new volumes to add to my growing book stacks. While many of these books will gather dust for at least two years before time and opportunity coincide to make me read them, every so often I will search out a novel that claws its way to the top of the pile. On one of my more recent book buying binges, I happened upon Chocolat by Joanne Harris. Having only since learnt that there is in fact a film adaptation of this book (quite how a Johnny Depp film managed to escape my radar, I’m not sure), I was drawn to this particular volume by it’s promise of a chocolate-themed escapade into French village life. Combining two of my favourite things right there. As such, it is less surprising that this book made swift progress from my ‘To Read’ to ‘Currently Reading’ stack. Having purposely eaten a snack before writing this (and suggesting that you do the same before reading), I give you my sadly Johnny-Deppless review…
“There is a kind of alchemy in the transformation of base chocolate into this wise fool’s gold, a layman’s magic…The mingled scents of chocolate, vanilla, heated copper and cinnamon are intoxicating, powerfully suggestive; the raw and earthy tang of the Americas, the hot and resinous perfume of the rainforest. This is how I travel now, as the Aztecs did in their sacred rituals. Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia. The court of Montezuma. Cortez and Columbus. The food of the gods, bubbling and frothing in ceremonial goblets. The bitter elixir of life.”
Chocolat is set in the small French village of Lansquenet, a place where routine and reassuring familiarity dominate daily activities. It is to this small and isolated village that the mysterious traveller, Vianne Rocher, arrives with her daughter. Setting up the chocolaterie, La Celeste Praline, Vianne brings a disturbance to the traditional rhythm of Lansquenet, inspiring condemnation from the local priest, Father Reynaud. Judging Vianne as a malign influence upon his community, Reynaud sets out to bring down La Celeste Praline and provoke Vianne to abandon Lansquenet for a new home. This battle of wills grows only more divisive once Vianne declares her plan to host an Easter Chocolate Festival, celebrating the various religious and secular traditions associated with the holiday. Combined with the arrival of a group of river travellers, Reynaud senses that he is losing control over his flock, and seeks out desperate measures to restore his version of normality to the village. As events reach their climax, it becomes clear that Reynaud’s vision for Lansquenet cannot coexist with Vianne’s determination to disseminate happiness and bring the village out of its self-imposed slumber.
This is a book working on numerous levels and appealing to all the senses. It is impressive first-and-foremost in its ability to communicate a familiarity with culture, despite obvious cultural differences. The author’s narrative is rich in the description and detail that is necessary to present the reader an immersive experience of an unfamiliar location. She brings Lansquenet to life masterfully. Much of this is also owed to the characters she creates. While I cannot say that I was left with a love or understanding of Vianne, Harris does craft her main character as both multi-dimensional and extremely complex. One of the most interesting aspects of Chocolat was the way in which Vianne is simultaneously the seemingly carefree usurper of the community, yet humanised through the first-person narrative the Harris employs. A central theme of the book is the revelation of Vianne’s life and principles as very much the product of her upbringing, forced from place to place by her own mother. From this, the reader develops a real sympathy for Vianne, brought most acutely to bear through the obvious sense of emotional and physical exhaustion that such a lifestyle creates:
“Places all have their own characters, and returning to a city where you have lived before is like coming home to an old friend. But the people begin to look the same; the same faces recurring in cities a thousand miles apart, the same expression. The flat, hostile stare of the official. The curious look of the peasant. The dull uninspired faces of the tourists…No, places do not lose their identity, however far one travels. It is the heart which begins to erode after a time…We leave no trace as we pass on. Ghostlike, we cast no shadow.”
While the contrast that Harris creates, between the traditional, ritualistic life of Lansquenet and Vianne’s indulgent approach to living, is an effective one, there is a fundamental problem in relating to her characters. While I was certainly left with a sympathy for Vianne, I retained a complete lack of investment in her decisions and the ultimate outcome of the book. I believe that the books we love are built upon the relationship of the reader with the characters – not necessarily a positive relationship, but certainly premised on investment in both narrative and plot. Chocolat did not manage this – owed, I believe, largely to the caricature-like development of Father Reynaud. Entering the novel as a man of faith and particular devotion to tradition and self-deprivation, he takes on a malevolence that feels utterly disproportionate to both plot and setting. Declaring, in a manner truly akin to the best of James Bond villains, “I’ll have her in the end, mon pere. In the end, won’t I have them all?,” Rocher is painted in a manner that renders him utterly unrealistic. This is not about the character or personality traits per se, but rather Rocher’s unsuitability to the narrative in which he is placed. In a world of conservatism and chocolate shops, even when the central theme is one of Church versus Chocolate, it is uncomfortably unreal to have Rocher resolve:
“But what if there were no chocolates? The thought is paralysing. For a second, hot joy suffuses me. The clever pig within me grins and prances. I could break into her house, it tells me. The back door is old and half-rotten. I could lever it open. Sneak into the shop with a cudgel.”
The idea upon which Chocolat is built is an intriguing one and, indeed, for the first half of the novel the interplay between traditional village life and the indulgence of La Celeste Praline is a brilliant one. Had the plot continued on this path, developing the conflict with a tone that suited the setting and characters, this book would be a remarkable read. I still believe that this is a novel worth picking up, particularly if you are looking for a light-hearted dip into rural France, and I very much doubt that you would regret giving Chocolat your time. But you may, like me, find yourself left with a feeling of something lacking. A wish that you could feel more invested in the novel’s climax and conclusion, rather than having the caricatured conflict and character of Reynaud serving as a persistent reminder that you are an outsider to this story.