If there is one thing this novel will tell you, it is that island life, no matter how picturesque the dressing, is far from romantic. Islanders can harbour the deepest of secrets, iron-clad bonds, and grudges that seem ancient as the Classics.
Le Devin, the setting of the book, is split into two sides: La Houssinière, prosperous, tourist-friendly, and claiming the most habitable part of the island; and Les Salants, a poor fishing village with little to recommend it to the tourists that descend on the island each year. It is no surprise that rivalry has existed between the two communities for as long as anyone can remember, mainly thanks to La Houssinière's complete control over the island's only beach, the main source of prosperity.
It is into this community that Mado, the book's protagonist, enters. Returning to the home that she left when she was small in order to care for her father, she quickly sees that Les Salants is suffering from an almost incurable sense of hopelessness, and desperately wants to wake it up. She meets Flynn, someone not from Le Devin but is treated as one of Les Salants, anyway, and tries to reacquaint herself with the small community. She quickly learns to distrust Claude Brismand, a La Houssinere entrepreneur who essentially seeks to own the whole island, and openly allies herself with Les Salants with the hope that in doing so, they will allow her to help them rejuvenate their part of the island.
It's easy to get swept along in Harris' evocative style, despite the oppressiveness that you can feel at the lack of hope in Les Salants. You can almost taste the salty air, feel the crisp breeze, and your heart aches at the thought of the Les Salants community dying because no one knows how to fix it, or is willing to find out why. However, Harris gradually starts to inject hope like a drip feed. Mado finds out what is happening to the beach and works with Flynn to find a solution; the beloved Saint, lost in the sea at her own festival, miraculously returns; the rivalries within Les Salants itself is put aside for the sake of banding together and doing what they can to put Les Salants on the map. But just when everything is going swimmingly, disaster strikes. Betrayals, hurts, secrets come out into the open and you wonder why they bothered putting in the effort in the first place.
It's a story that can never have a true ending, only a kind of pause, and Harris chooses the pause well. It's difficult to say goodbye to the characters, for whom you feel admiration and pity in equal measure, as you want to know that they're going to be okay. Yet, their lives will go on; it's just unfortunate that we don't get to witness it.
Thursday, 9 April 2015
This is an old favourite that I pick up every once in a while, but had never reviewed properly. I read it again whilst on a coach to London for a school trip just before Easter - let's just say the journeys there and back were long enough for me to complete the whole book on those two legs!
Vianne Rocher and her daughter, Anouk, arrive in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes on the day of a merry carnival, just before the Lenten period begins. Vianne and Anouk travel where the wind takes them, and may have even passed through Lansquenet in favour of another location had the carnival not enabled them to take notice. Anouk is begging to stay and Vianne agrees. They rent a property and work on opening a Chocolaterie, much to the dismay of the local priest, Reynaud. On the surface, the ensuing battle seems to be between tradition versus change, but as the story progresses it becomes much deeper - as Reynaud sees it, the might of the Church being challenged by pagan beliefs that he believes will tear his flock away. Vianne hopes that the two could live side-by-side but she is not naive. She knows what her choices can cost in such a tight-knit, devout (on the surface) community. Nevertheless, she sticks to her choices and makes great friends. She becomes instrumental in the transformation of people and relationships - Josephine Muscat, Armande and her grandson, and much-needed welcome to the travelling community who stop briefly in Lansquenet, much to the dismay of Reynaud and his cronies. She quietly shakes things up and encourages people to think differently - not necessarily swaying them from their beliefs but merely to look at things for themselves rather than through Reynaud's lenses. It's a good lesson to anyone with faith or no faith, and certainly was to me.
From the very first page, this book is a feast for the senses. Everything that Harris describes, you wish it were in front of you at that moment to devour. She blends in magical, ancient twists to the very process of Vianne's chocolate-making - Vianne relates how her mother would have decried this as a waste of talent, but Vianne is content. She knows it makes people happy, and, moreover, it makes her happy. This time around reading the book made me wish even more that I could find Vianne, drink some of her hot chocolate, have her guess my favourites and show me something that I'm missing. There are so many ways to read this book, so many messages you can take from it. It's one of those stories where you can find something different with each read. Most certainly a keeper for the bookshelves, and the soul.