WBN 38: Chocolat

Chocolatis a story about – well – chocolate. A young woman on the run, Vianne Rocher, and her six year old daughter, Anouk, stop in the small village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes and open a chocolaterie. The more religious element of the village (led by the emotionally twisted curé, Reynaud and a gang of uptight yummy mummies) see this as an affront; an attack on their beliefs and their righteous desires. One by one, the villagers warm to Vianne and are won over by her rich, indulgent wares at a time when Reynaud is preaching abstinence, fasting and self-denial. Chocolate is

The small village setting gives the novel a nostalgic air; it’s really not clear when the book is set. The intensely pious, church-based community feels like a Fifties throwback, but Vianne is a well travelled, worldly-wise modern woman (except when it comes to contraception, apparently). The community feels at times dense and claustrophobic: everyone knows everyone else’s business, and beneath the friendly smiles and neighbourly chats, old histories and resentments simmer, unforgotten. The message is not anti-religion, although the church curate is clearly drawn as a villain – it’s not that simple. The question being asked seems to be: who is more Christian? The man who goes to church every week and turns his back on a stranger, or the man whose face isn’t seen at Mass, but who loves his neighbour?

Incidentally, since I last read Chocolat, I started following the author, Joanne Harris, on Twitter and this time I found it took a good few pages to get her Twitter voice out of my head. The novel is read variously from Vianne or Reynaud’s points of view, and for the first couple of chapters all I could imagine was her little avatar bouncing up and down and reading the words aloud! Very offputting. But it did make me think about whether we need a little mystery from our authors, and whether getting to see an author in a slightly more personal context can affect our experience of a novel. But then I remembered how much I enjoy Harris’ Twitter storytimes, and the WTF?! moments she shares when she gets outrageous email requests from fans. So I think I’ll cope!

This is a deceptive novel. It’s easy to read and I really flew through it (although it was my second or third reading, at least). But it’s not simple. The language is rich, and paints vivid, warm images that stay with you for a long time. The characters are rounded and full, and you’re left wanting to know more about them. I felt an instant urge on finishing to move on to the equally brilliant sequel, The Lollipop Shoes. But, with another 95 books or so to read, it will have to wait, unfortunately!

Thanks to a sick day from work this week, I’ve actually read more than I needed to over the last few days. I’ll need the advantage though! So far, I’ve only been doing rereads (since they’re the books I already own and know whether I will enjoy), but at the moment I’m about a third of the way through Dracula, which I’ve never read before. IT’S FRIGHTENING.

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