(b. 1964)




Her Site

The Film "Chocolat"


Original Title

Título em Português (Edições ASA)




Gentlemen and Players, 2005

The French Market, 2005

Jigs & Reels, 2004

Holy Fools, 2003.

The French Kitchen, 2002.

Coastliners, 2002.

Five Quarters of the Orange, 2001.

Blackberry Wine, 2000.

Chocolat, 1999.

Sleep, Pale Sister, 1993 republished September 2004

The Evil Seed 1989


Xeque ao Rei   


Danças e Contradanças

Na Corda Bamba

A Cozinha Francesa

A Praia Roubada

Cinco Quartos de Laranja 

Vinho Mágico


Valete de Copas e Dama de Espadas
















Teresa Curvelo


Teresa Curvelo

Teresa Curvelo

Paulo Morais Vaz

Teresa Curvelo

Sara Santa Clara, rev. Helena Gomes

Maria João Neves Pereira

Teresa Casal

Teresa Curvelo




Recenções críticas de Ana Margarida Ramos


Na corda bamba   

Danças e contradanças 





March 7, 1999

Let Them Eat Candy

This novel pits a heroic chocolatier against a villainous parish priest.


Chocolate, I am told, is not a moral issue.'' Such, at least, is the opinion of Vianne Rocher, one of the two narrators of Joanne Harris's accomplished novel, which opens with the arrival of Vianne and her young daughter in the small French town of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes at the beginning of Lent. When Vianne transforms a defunct bakery into a chocolate shop called La Celeste Praline, the story echoes those folk tales in which the Devil, disguised as an amiable stranger, seduces the upstanding citizens of a village by awakening their appetite for pleasure. But in ''Chocolat,'' Harris plays a variation on this theme, illuminating the awful things that can happen when we neglect the satisfactions of this world for the promise of a better one. Her amiable stranger stands on the side of earthly angels.

Joanne Harris. Photo by Lorne Campbell (Guzelian Ltd)

Vianne's diabolical foil is the book's other narrator, the parish priest, Francis Reynaud, whose name suggests the foxy villains of La Fontaine and who is obsessed with getting rid of her. By the time Vianne announces plans for a chocolate festival that coincides with Easter, Reynaud is convinced that she plans to undermine both his authority and the teachings of the church. Well might he worry about a woman whose mother filled her head with ''tales of Mithras and Balder the Beautiful and Osiris and Quetzalcoatl all interwoven with stories of flying chocolates and flying carpets and the Triple Goddess and Aladdin's crystal cave of wonders and the cave from which Jesus rose after three days, amen, abracadabra, amen.''

Harris's knowledge of the culinary arts seems to be grounded in experience: the dust jacket tells us that she is part French and part English and ''was born in a sweetshop.'' Her descriptions of exquisitely presented food make her a worthy successor to that doyenne of 17th-century fairy tale writers, Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, who also filled her stories with delectable accounts of feasts, festivals and magic.

''There is a kind of sorcery in all cooking,'' Vianne observes. And sure enough, even the names of her candies seduce us: Eastern Journey, white rum truffle, Nipples of Venus. Though we all know that witches live in gingerbread houses, who among us could resist the spell cast by the gingerbread house that appears in the window of Vianne's shop, ''with the detail piped on in silver and gold icing, roof tiles of Florentines studded with crystallized fruits, strange vines of icing and chocolate growing up the walls, marzipan birds singing in chocolate trees''?

As in traditional fairy tales, the villains in ''Chocolat'' behave very badly indeed, with not much room for redemption. It would be easy to see the novel as a morality play in which the actions of the good and the bad never really surprise us. But by alternating her chapters between Vianne and Reynaud, Harris gives each of these characters an interior life and shows both sides of the story -- although Reynaud's does not make him any less a villain.

Where Reynaud sees weeds, Vianne sees flowers. Where he sees sinners, she sees fallible humanity: ''I don't think there is such a thing as a good or bad Christian. . . . Only good or bad people.'' Where he uses the fires of hell to control the saved and the fires of earth to rid the town of outcasts, Vianne uses the fire in her kitchen to cook and to nurture. In the dark hours before Easter morning, Reynaud, fearing that she is ''pulling the threads of my senses apart, reaching into my mind,'' sneaks into the chocolate shop, bent on sabotage.

Magic abounds in Harris's novel, but don't look for the magic realism of ''Like Water for Chocolate.'' Though Vianne is no stranger to candles, incense, incantations and the tarot, she casts a cold eye on the supernatural. ''People who know nothing of real magic imagine it to be a flamboyant process. . . . And yet the real business is very undramatic; simply the focusing of the mind toward a desired objective. There are no miracles, no sudden apparitions.'' The revelations here are psychological as well as psychic. Even the tarot tells Vianne what she already knows: ''The fear of loss -- Death. The fear of displacement -- the Tower. The fear of transience -- the Chariot.''

The gods of legend may dine well in their celestial palaces, but the true sorcery of cooking cannot take place unless the cook and the guests are mortal. This paradox of the human condition is surely one of the messages of Harris's book -- so much loving preparation, so much art and experience, put into a pleasure that can last only a moment.'' By the end, Vianne is ready to move on, knowing that Reynaud and she are linked, that ''one balances the other and without him I have no purpose here.''

Anyone lucky enough to have seen ''Babette's Feast'' or ''Big Night'' will recognize Vianne's passionate attention to detail when she prepares a birthday party for an 81-year-old village woman who refuses to let her impending death cast a shadow over the celebration. Harris's description of the chocolate festival also describes the novel: ''It is an amazement of riches. . . . Try me. Test me. Taste me.''

Few readers will be able to resist.

Nancy Willard's recent books include ''Swimming Lessons: New and Selected Poems'' and ''The Tale I Told Sasha.'' She teaches a class on the history of fairy tales at Vassar College.


January 2001


Joanne Harris


The village square is dusted with a light covering of snow. A number of people in hats and winter coats play pétanque, while a group of children cluster around a yapping Jack Russell dog. Three old ladies walk past, dressed identically in black, stopping briefly to peer into the window of one of the little shops facing the church. At first sight, it could almost be real.

Of course, there are some irregularities. The unseasonal heat. The mysterious but tantalizing scent of chocolate. And the fact that one of the old ladies looks suspiciously like Leslie Caron, who played Gigi in the musical of the same name, nearly half a century ago.

Notwithstanding these details, the illusion is almost perfect. It should be; the main square of the little French village has been recreated here with painstaking care, stone by stone. I recognize it instantly, although I have never been there. I recognize the shop, too, although the name has changed. I recognize the people, even though we have never met. I even recognize the dog. They are all from my novel, Chocolat, and this is the set of the film.

The scene has all the surreal elements of a dream. Down the steps to the side of the set, I can see Carrie-Anne Moss, wearing an impeccable twinset, pearls, hat and white gloves, riding a micro-scooter at top speed past a long table covered in cakes; Juliette Binoche is sitting in a canvas chair, having her hair done; a small girl in a red cloak is climbing some scaffolding and, as I turn the corner past a row of enormous lights, I see a woman standing alone in semi-darkness, stirring a large pan on a portable stove. I come closer, and discover that the pan contains melted chocolate. The scent of it is so strong and rich that it fills the entire place, village and all. Set out in front of me, on long tables, are hundreds of chocolate figures of all sizes and species; rabbits, lambs, fish, hens. And all of them seem to be looking straight at me. It's enough to make anyone lose touch with reality.

People often ask me: Did you ever imagine this would happen?
Of all the questions I have to answer, I dread this one the most. Could I possibly have imagined that my little book, written on Sunday mornings between my teaching job and my three-year-old daughter, would one day lead to all this?
Well, of course I could. That's what I do, after all. I imagine things.

I don't, however, expect them to happen.
Three years ago, when I wrote the book, I was a French teacher at a boys' school in Leeds. A lot of the time I still think of myself that way. It's easier to live in a fantasy world when real life keeps to a proper routine, but when reality starts playing games, things get complicated. Several times during the past three years, I have found myself genuinely unsure of whether or not I was dreaming.

I suppose it really began with Juliette Binoche. Playing the What-if game (what if my book got published, what if it became a film, what if I could choose anyone I wanted to play in it) I could see it all perfectly before the book was even finished. Some of the details changed, actors came in and out of favour, but in my mind it was always Juliette Binoche as Vianne. I understood that by signing the option agreement I had effectively given Miramax the right to set the film in space, if they wanted to, but all the same I continued to mention Juliette Binoche to everyone I met, as if by some process of attrition I might eventually break through.

The film industry is like a huge dinosaur; it takes an incredible time for commands from the brain to reach the various parts of the body, and once I had signed the option agreement I heard nothing more about Chocolat for eighteen months. I didn't expect to; I knew by then that most optioned books never make it to film, and that most film projects fall through at the last minute.A wise friend told me that as far as Hollywood was concerned I should never believe anything until I was in the cinema, watching the credits. It was good advice. I still mentioned Juliette Binoche, though, whenever I could get anyone to listen.

Then, the first rumblings began. The internet is the best place to check rumours. Most of the information I got was from there; the name of the screenwriter; the debate on casting; the signing of Lasse Hallström as director. Miramax kept stubbornly silent, but it was clear to me that something was happening inside the Hollywood dinosaur. I got a copy of Bob Jacobs' script to read; I liked it very much, in spite of the changes to the story. But I continued to expect nothing.

Six months later, the rumbling had got louder. The rumours had begun to contradict each other; one day Miramax were going to cast Gwyneth Paltrow, then Julia Roberts, then Whoopi Goldberg. No-one seemed to have taken my hints regarding Juliette Binoche.

Then she phoned me. She had read the book, and talked Harvey Weinstein into giving her the part. (Why didn't I think of that? I wondered, but I suppose this kind of thing only works if you're Juliette Binoche.) Second, she liked the script but was concerned about some of the dialogue. Could I meet her in Paris to discuss it?

This, I think, was the moment at which I began to question my grasp on reality. Nothing about life in Barnsley or teaching at Leeds Grammar School had prepared me for this. We met in a café over tea, cakes and the script (there was a marvellous moment as the supercilious garçon who had ignored me as I sat waiting suddenly realized whom I had been waiting for). On screen, Juliette often looks ethereal and rather melancholy; in life she is funny, vivacious and very smart. She plays the star extremely well when she has to (at premières and with rude journalists), but she is above all a real person doing a real job. We talked for hours; once I had got over my awe I found that we shared a surprising amount of common ground.We concluded that we needed to talk some more, and Juliette invited herself for a weekend the following month, to go over the script in detail.

Dinosaurs can move quite fast, once the brain is in gear. After my meeting with Juliette a lot of things started to happen; the cast began to assemble; the script was rewritten several times; the date for filming was set for the 2nd May. There is no guest room in my house, so Juliette slept in my daughter's bed (surrounded by soft toys and pictures of spacemen), while during the day we scrutinized every line of the Chocolat script, making changes as we went. She read her own part aloud; I read everything else. We drank gallons of hot chocolate. I kept pinching myself.

One of the reasons I originally thought of Juliette for the part is that she has a child the same age as my own daughter, Anouchka, who figures prominently in the book. The relationship between mother and daughter is the strongest one in the story, and I hoped she would bring some of her own experience to the part. I was right; she and Anouchka got on wonderfully (although Anouchka insisted upon referring to her as "Juliette Brioche"), and we all had strong feelings about the fact that my daughter's invisible rabbit, Pantoufle (a key player in the book) had morphed, courtesy of Miramax, into a kangaroo. Sadly, in spite of this, the kangaroo has remained. It is my only real regret.

In spite of this, we made headway on the script. In normal circumstances I would only have had a courtesy involvement, as anyone who has sold their soul to Hollywood will know, but it's amazing what you can do if you have a big star on your side. Most of my suggestions were adopted. Suddenly I was consulted on all kinds of things, from the musical score to the correct way to cast runes. The red good-luck sachets which Vianne hangs up above her door were taken from my house by Juliette during her visit. So far, I think the luck is working.

The shooting began the following week in Bath, then on location in France. I spent the last two weeks on set in Shepperton, where most of the interiors had been built. It was at the same time like and very unlike what I had imagined. The sets were disturbingly familiar; I recognized my great-grandmother's house in France and her bedroom and all her pots and pans hanging on the wall; the chocolaterie was exactly as I had imagined it, but better, with rows of sweet-jars against the walls and strange Mexican figurines guarding the chocolate treasure. There was even a tribute to the original Pantoufle in the window - a chocolate marzipan rabbit in a magician's hat and cape. Anouchka has it in her bedroom now. The fact that she hasn't eaten it is the greatest compliment I can think of.

Chocolate is a mood-altering substance. I have always suspected this (in twelve years of teaching, it never failed for me), and I saw the proof at last during the filming of Chocolat. Film sets can be stressful places. The budgets, the schedules, the personal conflicts mean that tempers often run high, especially so near the end. But not here. Here, everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time. Lasse Hallström (who I had imagined as a rather frightening figure with a peaked cap and a megaphone) was charming, never raising his voice or showing a sign of impatience. The scent of chocolate from the portable stove behind the set was so strong that actors from other sets found excuses to linger outside, sniffing enviously. In spite of the frenzy of activity backstage, no-one seemed too busy to talk to me. There was an atmosphere of creative, cheerful energy. Even the photographer was smiling. It must have been the chocolate.

At the end of it all, however, I am aware of having been very lucky. I feel like someone who has wandered through a dangerous maze, taking turns at random, and who has, against all probability, blundered their way to the prize. It makes me feel rather guilty, and I almost expected to hate the film, as if in compensation for having had such an easy ride so far. But I don't. It's everything I hoped it would be; warm, funny and light-hearted, with enough irony to keep it from being over-sweet. Sitting watching it for the first time in New York, eating popcorn and watching the credits roll, I can ask myself cautiously whether it's safe to start believing now.



Gentlemen and Players





Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris

By Christian House

Published: 09 October 2005

A good public school novel is as tricky to pull off as a neat Windsor knot. Joanne Harris is better placed than most to try her luck, having taught French in such an establishment, and she has created her own peculiar brand of old-fashioned fables where plucky outsiders topple repressive authorities.

Although tagged with an undeserved reputation for writing fluff, her almost fairytale plots have frequently baited a barbed hook. It's a technique that has come to the fore in Gentlemen & Players; if her breakthrough novel, Chocolat, was a confection of Gallic whimsy then this is a literary gobstopper with an aniseed heart.

It's a new year at St Oswald's Grammar School for Boys and things are unravelling faster than a scarf caught on the school gates. An archaic institution on the edge of a small nameless English town, it has fallen foul of "inspections, restructurings, treason and plot". Or that's how Roy Straitley, ageing Latin Master and resident cynic, sums up the beginning of term. He's about to notch up his hundredth season, a century of chalk dust and detentions of which he is gruffly proud. However, a Teutonic twit of a German professor, an anally retentive Headmaster and a series of vicious pranks conspire to scupper his anniversary. The real problem is that an anonymous impostor lurks among the intake of new teachers: the son of a disgraced former porter. Flashbacks from this interloper's teenage years neatly set the scene for the present-day revenge quest.

"Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody," claimed Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith's famous fraud. It's a mantra that this equally talented phoney has adopted with gusto. With the narrative switching between Roy's crumbling career and the deranged mission of his nemesis, Harris incites sympathy for both warring factions. In particular, the twisted logic of the younger man is utterly seductive. He's raised in the glare of the shiny, happy people his father serves but has to attend a dreary comprehensive full of "slappers, toerags and proles". Eventually he resorts to stealing pass keys and prowling the hallowed halls and lichen-lined battlements of St Oswald's at night. After he befriends a genuine "Oswaldian", there is a wonderful moment when the pair take the school lawn mower on a joyride and for a moment he is one of the golden boys: "We were magical; we were Butch and Sundance, leaping from the cliff's edge, leaping from the mower in a haze of grass and glory and running for it, running like hell as the Mean Machine kept going in majestic, unstoppable slo-mo towards the trees." After he's rejected, I couldn't help cheer him on as he returns for his own vindictive form of carpe diem.

Unpleasant flotsam bobs in the wake of many a public school education: the arrogance, the snobbery, the interminable roll call of nicknames. Yet Harris tempers this with the allure of such places: St Oswald's is, after all, a site of tradition and accomplishment. "The flat echo of boys' feet against the stone steps; the smell of burning toast from the Refectory; the peculiar sliding sound of overfilled sports bags being dragged along the newly polished floors." It's all a "metaphor for eternity", and that's appealing on a base sentimental level.

Harris knows her subject and the novel fits into its genre exceedingly well. Roy is a contemporary take on the redundant Classics tutor from Terrence Rattigan's The Browning Version and all the class-bound malice has the flavour of Stephen Fry's prep-based fiction. But ultimately, Harris has taken what Benjamin Disraeli termed "the microcosm of a public school" and slotted her own romantic teachings into the curriculum to produce a wildly entertaining lesson on the twin perils of envy and elitism.



Class war

Joanne Harris has abandoned French cuisine for a boys' school thriller in Gentlemen & Players, says Harry Ritchie

Saturday October 15, 2005
The Guardian

Gentlemen & Players
by Joanne Harris
512pp, Doubleday, £14.99

She has become such a fixture of the middlebrow market that it's hard to believe it's only six years since Joanne Harris broke into the bestseller lists. Mind you, since Chocolat allowed her to give up the day job, Harris has clearly mounted a campaign for world domination of the book-group market - counting the cookbooks, this is the eighth publication in her half-dozen years of full-time authorship.

For Gentlemen & Players, Harris returns to the world of that erstwhile day job, setting the novel in the sort of north-of-England fee-paying grammar school where she used to teach - although one only hopes that Leeds Grammar has fewer fatalities than the St Oswald's she creates here with an insider's confident, if not entirely riveting, attention to detail. The story is told by two narrators - Roy Straitley, old-school Latin beak starting his 100th term, and the cunningly anonymous person whose father was once the school caretaker - and flits between the present and 15 years before, when the villainous mystery narrator lived in awe and envy of St Oswald's while being condemned to attend an oikish, violent comp.

This fascination with a better world of cricket pavilions and Latin prep led the mystery narrator - to specify any further would be to give away the plot's punchline - to the curious extreme of masquerading as a St Oswald's pupil. This in turn led to a torridly unrequited love for a genuine St Oswald's schoolboy with floppy hair and a wicked streak. Now, 15 years on, our villainous narrator has returned to St Oswald's with a fake ID and phoney CV, ostensibly to teach but really to wreak murderous revenge on the school which our narrator now loathes with a passion.

It's quite a complicated plot, with its two narrative perspectives and two time-frames, and one that's made even more demanding by the additional requirement of having to keep that narrator's true identity concealed until the last pages, which involves all manner of tricky, obfuscatory measures. But Harris pulls it all off, demonstrating admirable competence as she paces her twists and turns and engineers an excellent, genuinely surprising final twist after a chase across the school's rooftops and a tense Bonfire Night climax.

However, this is a novel stronger on drama and mystery than on plausibility. There are too many occasions when it's quite difficult to keep disbelief suspended. Would the villain of the piece really have adopted the snidely clever pseudonym of Pinchbeck as an 11-year-old? How come the narrator's school-caretaker dad declines into a depressed torpor, rather routinely spending all his money on "the beer and the football and his passion for scratchcards", in the late 1980s when scratchcards were but a distant dream of a few social visionaries? And why is the staff room at St Oswald's populated by characters with such weird names (Eric Scoones, Dr Shakeshaft, timid Mr Meek, and my personal favourite, Hillary Monument)?

This is all strangely reminiscent of another fictional school for scandal - the curious north London comprehensive where Zoë Heller set her Notes on a Scandal, which starred an implausibly full-time pottery teacher who, for reasons unknown to her or anyone else, has an affair with a pupil, while performing such unlikely feats as looking up her lover's name in the phone book she finds in a public callbox, and which also features a maths teacher called Brian Bangs and a headmaster named Pabblem.

As with Heller's novel, the daft errors and silly names in Gentlemen & Players serve only to highlight a basic unbelievability. Would a child really go to the lengths of impersonation required by this plot? Would that child really grow up to execute such gory revenge? Well, no, but then there wouldn't be a story, would there? It's a measure of the plot's cleverness and the skill and care that's gone into its construction that its highly dubious premise doesn't seem to matter nearly as much as it should. Book groups of the world, watch out.

Harry Ritchie's Friday Night Club is published by Flame.



October 02, 2005

The Gentlemen & Players by Joanne Harris


by Joanne Harris

Doubleday £14.99 pp512

Take two schools: St Oswald’s, an old-fashioned grammar school, and Sunnybank Park, the local state institution. At St Oswald’s, there are playing fields, a sprawling mellowed stone building, Latin lessons, the ride to school in the Volvo or the four-wheel drive. Sunnybank Park has boys in nylon jackets and scuffed trainers, loud-mouthed girls with dyed hair. This social apposition is a theme throughout Gentleman & Players, and is indeed at the heart of its intricate plot. But plot is all, and what we have here is the classic closed society whodunnit — a finite group of characters, a place from which none can escape, and the escalation of tension.

St Oswald’s is splendidly involved. One would almost suspect Harris to have served time herself in such a place. The staff are divided into the new wave of Suits — dedicated to IT and innovation — and a diminishing band of Tweed Jackets, the old-style beak personified by Roy Straitley, the elderly classics master who refuses e-mail and smokes Gauloises in his mouse-infested classroom. But Straitley is far from a figure of fun, and will become the pivot of the story, as events unfold and we skip back and forth in time.

Thirteen years ago, the son of the school caretaker, a pupil at a feeder school to Sunnybank, eyed the forbidding No Trespassers sign outside St Oswald’s and decided to breach it. He does so — softly, softly — and is at last able to flit in and out, wearing a snitched uniform, prying in locked rooms with keys stolen from his father, and eventually striking up a friendship with Leon, a wayward lad slightly older than the 12-year-old invader. Leon takes him for a fellow pupil. This dance between past and present is a touch dizzying at first; the reader has to hang in there. But that is nothing to what is to come.

St Oswald’s is under attack. Things start to fall apart. The local paper, fed by a mysterious mole, runs damaging stories about alleged anti-semitism at the school. An allergic boy nearly dies of anaphylactic shock after a peanut is placed in his Fanta; things disappear — a valuable pen, a credit card. Straitley finds himself the object of accusations. The cast swirls around — the bluff loyal second master, the louche games teacher, the two “freshers”, pleasantly efficient Miss Dare, and the smooth-talking Keane, who is taking copious notes, material for the novel he says he plans to write.

The new guard at St Oswald’s are determined to haul it into the 21st century, and to dispense with such anachronisms as classics and Roy Straitley. In a nice irony, they now find themselves caught up in that ultimate 21st-century pedagogic nightmare — allegations of paedophilia. The police arrive; the mole has been at work, and adverse publicity spreads to the national papers. Flitting back and forth, we discover what happened 13 years ago, when the caretaker’s son and Leon went for a spree on the school rooftops.

At this point, the plot does not so much thicken as engulf. A sticker on the proof copy beseeches reviewers not to reveal the twist. Perish the thought. But this constriction means that the whole last section of the book must be under embargo. Suffice it to say that this reader was nicely fooled, and had to do much flicking back to check what exactly was said a couple of hundred pages earlier.

The prime requirement of what the Americans call “mystery writing” is that it should be convincingly embedded; Gentlemen & Players comes rooted in a persuasive world of recalcitrant boys, warring teachers, Latin tags and health and safety requirements. If its author did indeed once do a stint in front of the blackboard, it has stood her in good stead — or enabled her to take a subtle revenge.



The Washington Post


Ron Charles

School for Scandal

San Francisco Chronicle


Mario Bruzzone 

Boys-school thriller holds an odd secret

Rocky Mountain News


Frank L. Kaplan

Harris' wit conquers flaws

The Seattle Times


Melinda Bargree

Author taps into personal background....

The New York Times


Janet Maslin

In Playgrounds Tweedy or Seedy, It's All in the Game



Read these articles here                         


Holy Fools



Joanne Harris
(Filed: 27/04/2003)

The bestselling author tells Victoria Lane why she has abandoned chocolate for lesbian nuns

Joanne Harris was a schoolteacher from Barnsley writing novels in her spare time when her third published novel, Chocolat, became the book that every fifth person in the country seemed to be reading. You could walk down a train and spot the purple-and-gold covers. Like other word-of-mouth bestsellers – Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Miss Garnet's Angel – it wooed readers with its evocation of a warmer and simpler part of Europe and armloads of homegrown whimsy.

Harris, whose first novel was about vampires, says: "I don't tend to do category fiction very well. One of my problems when I was starting off was that publishers were hesitant to handle my books because they were never sure what I was going to do next." But with Chocolat, she more or less invented a genre of her own. It's not that her novels follow a recipe, but there are some staple ingredients. Like her other books, her latest, Holy Fools, features a strong-willed, liberated – even libertine – outsider living in an isolated community where censoriousness and secrecy reign. In Chocolat, for example, the headstrong Vianne sets up a delectable confectionery shop in a small French village on the first day of Lent, to the disgust of the sour, sexually tormented priest. She proceeds to heal the town in a slightly pushy manner, befriending lame ducks and killing the religious hypocrites with kindness and cocoa. The book was duly made into a film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, which presumably could have changed the author's life considerably, although the only obvious concession she made was to give up teaching.

Holy Fools is Harris's seventh novel. It is set in France again, but it does mark a sort of departure, in that it is a costume melodrama with blackmail, suicide, self-flagellation and lesbian nuns. It is 1610, and the nine-year-old Louis XIII ("a boy not out of short coats") has just come to the throne. Juliette is a nun with a past: an ex-lover, the purely wicked Guy LeMerle; and a small daughter, paternity unknown. The abbey may be Juliette's home, but as she haughtily informs the reader: "I have never believed in God. Not in your God anyway." Her gypsy upbringing means that instead she reads tarot cards and makes a mysterious forking gesture to ward off evil. (Harris's French maternal grandmother claimed to be a witch, and magic and superstition are often used as emblems of sympathy.)

The nunnery is full of damaged misfits, but there is a kind, almost pagan reverend mother, who in her simple, uneducated faith helps them all to find solace. A fat nun spends her time in the bakery. A scrawny one scrubs floors all day. But the party has to end. The abbess dies, and the fiercely puritan 11-year-old daughter of a noble family is appointed. And who's that in priestly robes standing behind the child nun's right shoulder? Could it be LeMerle?

The ending is enigmatic, as Harris's endings tend to be. She loves ambiguity, the "shall I stay or shall I go?". "I do shy clear of telling people too clearly what to believe and what happens next," she says. "I love it when my books cause controversy, when people argue violently about the ending." With Holy Fools, her American publisher exerted pressure on her to be more explicit, and in fact to steer away from the suggested ending: "They wanted [Juliette] to have a very American emotional awakening at the end. But I pointed out that people are not like that. The great thing about books is that you can end with a question mark."

Harris, who is in her late thirties, grew up in Barnsley. Her parents, a local man and a Frenchwoman, were also teachers. She spent summers with her French grandparents at their fisherman's cottage on an island off the Vende coast, and stories about her mother's side of the family have fed her fiction for years. Her husband, Kevin, was her first boyfriend. She started going out with him when she was 17, and married him after leaving Cambridge. Until a little over a year ago, they and their 10-year-old daughter, Anoushka, still lived in their first home in Barnsley, in the same street as her parents. They have now moved to Huddersfield.

It's such a rooted life, showing little sign of restlessness. And yet Harris's heroines have an impulse to force change. Vianne in Chocolat feels "the wind" beckoning her onwards. Juliette in Holy Fools was a travelling trapeze artist. They are without family or home. It's hard to square these free spirits with the author, whose shoes are planted so firmly in Yorkshire, except to deduce that her books provide escapism for her as well as for her readers.

Harris's many readers may have started off loving her plentiful descriptions of crème Chantilly and marzipan, and the black-and-white morality she offered. But in her more recent books, including Five Quarters of the Orange and Coastliners, she has endeavoured to admit more complexity, and is relieved that this hasn't put readers off. "Five Quarters was more challenging and much darker – and people followed me there. I had been rather fearing that I was going to be Joanne `Chocolat' Harris for ever."

Perhaps sensing the danger, she also renounced writing about food after Five Quarters of the Orange, because "everyone else is doing it", and now she says that her next book will leave France behind: "There were very specific reasons for writing about France – my family history – but none of the things I'm working on now is set there."

Unusually, she prefers to be working on a few projects at once: "It means I'm never under pressure to go on with something I don't want to work on, and I can leave things and return to them with a better perspective." Her publisher doesn't give her deadlines: "I don't do time pressure very well. Anyway, I tend to drive myself faster than anyone else wants to drive me."

Indeed she does. She has averaged a novel a year for the last four years or so, and even if some of these were begun years ago (Holy Fools existed in embryonic form before Chocolat), it seems quite a rate. The regularity with which her novels appear means that she has been touring fairly consistently for the last few years: she visited 12 countries last year. Now she says it's time for a break – after the film script for her book Coastliners, that is, and a collection of short stories. She thinks that these will surprise people, because there are all kinds of elements in there, including science fiction: "If you are a writer of stories then I find it quite difficult to believe that you want to stay in one area of storytelling rather than explore many different ones. I write for fun, and if it wasn't fun it would be immediately obvious.''

Joanne Harris's `Holy Fools' is published by Doubleday



                                    s u n t i m e s . c o m


A novel of love and revenge in a convent

February 1, 2004

by Kristin Kloberdanz




William Morrow. $24.95.

Soeur Auguste, a demure nun who quietly tends her abbey garden off the coast of France, shares her vows and living quarters with her sisters, but not her secrets. And Soeur Auguste has many secrets. These are rekindled on a steamy summer day in 1610, when a motley troupe of actors arrives at the island where Abbey of Sainte-Marie-de-la-mer is ensconced for an afternoon performance.

Life at the abbey for the past five years has been tranquil for Soeur Auguste. She was able to give birth to her daughter Fleur there, and no one, not even the kind old Reverend Mother, Mere Marie, questioned the young woman's claim that she was newly widowed. She easily joined the ranks of the other nuns -- all uniquely miscast for the world outside the abbey walls -- and proceeded to raise her child in this safe haven.

However, with the arrival of Lazarillo's World Players that sultry afternoon came a flood of memories for Soeur Auguste, who used to be Juliette, a traveling Gypsy acrobat who took flight on the high ropes as L'ilee, the Winged One, the Skydancer, the Flying Harpy. From the time she was a child, she traveled the land with dancers, artistes, jester dwarves, magicians, fortunetellers and other "holy fools." Now, in her nun's habit, as she watches the actors perform in the courtyard, the first sign of old trouble is flashed. "A crow, black bird of misfortune, flew overhead. For a second I felt the cool flicker of its shadow across my face and, with my fingers, forked the sign against malchance. Tsk-tsk, begone!"

But as misfortune is wont to happen, especially in the early pages of a thick novel, the shadow has been cast. Within moments, the young nun catches a glimpse of her traitorous ex-lover -- a man named Guy LaMerle, whose dirty deeds are only hinted -- in the crowd. The tempestuous but ever-loyal Juliette inside the nun is reawakened, and she braces herself for the worst. "Our time in the sunlight had finally come to an end. The masquerade was over."

The Reverend Mother dies the afternoon of the performance and is soon replaced by a cruel 11-year-old child, the niece of a high-standing Parisian bishop. Accompanying the new abbess is a holy man whom Juliette recognizes as LaMerle in disguise. Together, the new abbess and LaMerle strip the abbey of all that was once good and transform it into an atmosphere of fear, drudgery and strict godliness. Slowly the nuns are whipped into a frenzy as their well water mysteriously turns to blood, crosses are upturned and a ghostly nun suddenly starts pacing their halls. The nuns, once close, begin to prey upon each other and sling accusations, as Juliette watches astounded at the sidelines with the knowledge that LaMerle, former troupe master, is employing his trickery upon helpless women. She unfortunately cannot flee this madhouse, for Fleur has disappeared. The desperate mother must now determine why LaMerle is going through such effort to create chaos at the abbey -- and why he seems to need her help in return for her child's safety.

Despite some occasionally heavy-handed symbolism, Holy Fools is a fantastic reading experience. Juliette's tale of life on the road in the early 1600s stands alone as an adventure story, ripe with vivid characters, colorful performances and seedy undercurrents. When she narrates and intermeshes these tales with the maddening religious hysteria that is mounting at the abbey, the tone is chilling.

While Juliette narrates most of the novel, LeMerle occasionally slips in to voice his contempt of the nuns or Juliette, oozing arrogance like an oily puppet master. The transition between the former lovers is seamless, and occasionally their voices almost flow as one. The sexual tension between the two, despite the betrayals and abject emotions, is palpable, and this writing style stokes the fires. While one might wonder at times why Juliette cannot ever truly exorcise herself of her treacherous "Blackbird," there is never any doubt about the electric pull between them. "Of course I loved him, and with the unquestioning adoration of the new-hatched chick," Juliette muses early on. "Love not often, but forever. More fool me."

Joanne Harris, author of the popular Chocolat, Blackberry Wine and Five Quarters of the Orange, is a sensual writer with a keen historical perspective on what life must have been like in France in the early part of the 17th century. Like a deft acrobat, Harris dances and tumbles from one juicy description and cutting narration to the next, all building toward the dramatic climax. This is a novel of revenge and, in a perverse way, unrequited love.

Chicago writer Kristin Kloberdanz contributes to a variety of publications.


The devil we love

Helen Falconer finds a portrait of the appeal of evil in Holy Fools by Joanne Harris

Saturday June 7, 2003
The Guardian

Holy Fools
by Joanne Harris
430pp, Doubleday, £15

Like a mother who flagrantly dotes on her wildest child, Joanne Harris has always lavished love on her darkest characters - think of Renaud in Chocolat, Brismand in Coastliners . Now, in Holy Fools , she has given birth to the greatest villain of them all: Guy LeMerle, a cut-throat so disloyal, so morally empty, that he bears only one comparison - Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects. Yet I found myself idly musing, "Well, I wouldn't kick him out of bed for eating biscuits..." Thus does Harris entice us to confirm the central creed of her latest novel - that evil can entrance the human soul.

Holy Fools is the story of Juliette, a street acrobat who becomes infatuated with Guy LeMerle, a mysterious, corrupt and beautiful young man who leads his outrageous, satirical dance troupe from town to town in plague-torn, politically volatile 17th-century France. When her treacherous lover abandons her to certain death, Juliette escapes with her little daughter to Sainte Marie de la Mer, a remote convent run as an undemanding - almost pagan - commune. Following the murder of Henri IV in Paris, a new abbess arrives determined to infuse the nuns with strict religious zeal. Re-enter LeMerle, masquerading as a zealous and wildly handsome priest, who sets out to win the hearts and loins of every adoring woman in the place.

For personal reasons of his own - pride, rage, self-amusement - LeMerle, watched by a mesmerised Juliette, persuades the innocent nuns that they are possessed by the devil, and then sits back to admire their ensuing descent into mass hysteria and the fires of hell. Egged on by this preposterous priest, the innocent nuns gyrate and twitch and expose themselves, vying to be possessed by demons, revelling in the imagined depths of sin and oblivious to the fact that there is only one devil here - the man LeMerle, smiling and nodding as he warms his hands at the fires of human frailty. Juliette, armed only with truth and rationality, will take him on, and perhaps defeat him in the short term, but she cannot uproot the seed that he has planted in her womb and soul.

Joanne Harris fought hard for LeMerle. Four months before the book came out she said that "LeMerle has already caused more controversy than any other character I have ever created," adding that "I don't see him entirely as a villain. In fact, he is a kind of existential hero." Championed by his stubborn author, LeMerle survived and strutted forth on the page unchanged and unrepentant.

Of course, Harris was completely right to stick to her vision. LeMerle is evil triumphant, but he triumphs because stupid, uncalculating innocents can hear a man intone the scriptures and believe it is the voice of God; because we are gratified by our helplessness in the face of sin; because we set out to be possessed by lies; because we think truth is boring and the devil fun.

Harris always pays careful attention to physical and social detail, and writing a "historical" novel has brought out the best in her descriptive style. The subject matter even sits well with the odd authorial overspill into purple melodrama. No surprise, then, if this novel makes it to the screen. Also no surprise if the more ruthless god of film makes Hollywood mincemeat of LeMerle, bringing him repentant to his knees.

Helen Falconer's novel Sky High is published this month.


April 4, 2004



By Joanne Harris.
Morrow, $24.95.

The 17th-century France of Joanne Harris's novel is a landscape of demon-haunted nuns, treacherous dwarfs and mobs of witch-hunting villagers. It's an aptly outlandish backdrop for a story that revels in campy excesses. Juliette, an erstwhile travelling acrobat, has taken shelter in a remote island abbey after narrowly escaping a death sentence for witchcraft. Her peaceful idyll there, in the company of her 5-year-old daughter, is disturbed by the arrival of her former lover and the story's villain, Guy LeMerle. Villain is just the antique word for LeMerle, a miscreant who splits his time between plotting murderous revenge on his enemies and seducing virgins. LeMerle still has designs on Juliette, whom he woos with come-ons like ''Exquisite harpy, I trust I am not interrupting your ablutions.'' Harris tosses off even the most purple prose with such aplomb that readers may give in to the sheer silliness of it.


The New Zealand Herald


Joanne Harris: Holy Fools


It seems sour to turn on a once-admired author for doing the same thing again and again, but there can come a time when her books start to seem like parodies of themselves. For the second time, Harris has steered clear of food - Coastliners was themed with the sea; Holy Fools is set in a 17th century monastery and reeks of religious mysticism - but she seems to have lost her way, along with her original theme.

Holy Fools reminds me of one of the travelling circuses that romp through its pages, with a small number of performers playing a welter of roles, simply changing dress and wigs to give the illusion of numbers. It's becoming clear that in Harris' books the same characters appear time after time, just with different names and backstories.

Bring back the heady aromas of Framboise's kitchen in Five Quarters of the Orange, I say, and begone with trying to transplant a 21st century sensibility into a 17th century context, and then giving her only dried bread to eat.

Juliette (aka Chocolat's Vianne, Coastliners' Mado and so on) is a former high-wire performer who once travelled in her caravan along the rutted roads of France and lived a carefree existence in circus troupes made up of gypsies and rogues. She's a feminist uninhibited about sex, an aetheist but a mystic, fiery but kind-hearted, and skilful at herbal remedies and poisons. For the five years before the story opens she's lived in a remote monastery, the Abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer. How and why she ended up there, along with her 5-year-old daughter Fleur, is recounted in the first part of the book, including the story of her relationship with the evil Guy LeMerle, whom she first adored and then came to hate.

LeMerle, disguised as a priest, is about to re-enter the scene however, with the new abbess. She is 11-year-old Isabella, with whom Juliette instantly locks horns. Where an earthy, female culture once predominated at the abbey, now the male religious principles of penance and sin take hold, and things are set for a mystery-laden, hell-firish finale.

Little stacks up in this overdramatised, overlong tale. On the good side, however, is Harris' trademark darkness that smears dirty fingerprints across her idealism. Her sense of psychology, and of the complexity of human relationships and motivations, remains surprising and satisfying.



Sunday, February 8, 2004


Fiery tightrope walker does a balancing act with her past
Reviewed by Regan McMahon, Chronicle Assistant Book Editor

Holy Fools

By Joanne Harris

MORROW; 368 PAGES; $24.95

Joanne Harris has used a formula of sorts for four of her five novels, including her latest, "Holy Fools.'' She creates a liberated female narrator- protagonist who is an outsider plagued by her past. This heroine often has some witchlike powers and/or extraordinary talent, and her defiance of the local authorities forms the dramatic tension of the story. So it was for the mysterious choclatière in "Chocolat'' (1999) and the Breton crepe-maker in "Five Quarters of the Orange'' (2001). The young artist of her last book, "Coastliners" (2002), didn't have any special potions, spells or recipes, but she turned up in her native village on the tiny island of Le Devin after years away in Paris and did her best to shake up the status quo, manipulating local religious superstitions to her advantage.

In "Holy Fools," Harris returns to the same part of Brittany where "Coastliners" is set (where the half-British, half-French author spent her childhood summers), only about 400 years earlier. The novel takes place in 1610, when our primary narrator, Juliette, is a nun living under the name Soeur Auguste at the Abbey of Sainte-Marie-de-la-mer, not far from Le Devin. She had fled to the abbey five years before, at age 23, with her fatherless baby in tow, having left a dangerous and exciting life as an itinerant actress and aerialist in the Theatre des Cieux. She told the reverend mother that she was a widow and was allowed to keep the girl, named Fleur. "For her, I wear the red cross of the Bernardines,'' Juliette tells us. "I work the fields instead of the high rope, I devote my days to a God for whom I have little affection and even less understanding. But with her at my side, this life is far from unpleasant.'' Juliette isn't just a non-devout Catholic; she relies on hidden Tarot cards and secretly uses hexes and incantations to protect herself and Fleur.

The story is told in a combination of flashbacks to Juliette's former life (first in a family of Gypsies and then in the theater troupe) and a journal of contemporary goings-on at the abbey. Her past and present merge when her former lover Guy Le Merle, the charismatic and nefarious leader of the troupe -- and Fleur's father, although he doesn't know it -- shows up and passes himself off as Père Saint-Armand, father-confessor to the newly installed abbess, a 12-year-old prig who's the niece of the bishop.

What's his angle? Juliette wonders. But before she can figure it out, Le Merle sends Fleur away, holding her hostage to what turns out to be a plot of revenge against the bishop, who had once banished him from Paris. Taking Fleur to secure Juliette's silence and assistance was "his opening gambit in a game for which I did not yet know the stakes,'' she reflects. The medieval setting gives Harris ample opportunity to poke fun at religion and hypocrisy, as she does in all her books. Juliette muses at one point that "there must be something horribly flawed in a Creator who persists in testing his creatures to destruction, in providing a world well stocked with pleasures only to announce that all pleasure is sin, in creating mankind imperfect, then expecting us to aspire to perfection. The devil at least plays fair.''

Harris varies her formula this time by presenting some chapters in the voice of Le Merle, a duplicitous knave and tomcatting rogue. We get his back story (and reasons for revenge) and hear his arrogant delight at duping the abbey's sisters, playing on their medieval gullibility and willingness to see demons behind every unexplained occurrence. He's such a spicy character -- is he evil or just a master manipulator? -- that it's a pleasure when he takes the stage. And in the nail-biting climax, the flipping between Juliette's voice and Le Merle's becomes fast and furious within the same chapter, sometimes on the same page. The reader is alerted to the shift with playing-card symbols each time: a heart when Juliette narrates, a spade when Le Merle does.

The colorful flashbacks, when Juliette is free and traveling around France in a caravan, earning coins from town to town doing her tightrope act, fooling nobles and clerics and staying one step ahead of the law, far outshine her dreary life at the abbey. Things pick up when Le Merle whips the nuns into an ecstatic, demonic frenzy, but still, a lot of the middle part of the novel has little to keep us going but portent. The petty machinations of the strict nun, the fat nun, the crazy nun, the tubercular nun pale in comparison to the clever dwarves, acrobats, thieves and fortune tellers of Juliette's past. It gets hard to hang in there, waiting for some resolution.

But as usual, Harris ties up all the loose ends and satisfyingly reveals the deep motivations of her characters in the finale. When the incendiary action unfolds, with Juliette using her tightrope walker's skills in a dramatic abbey scene, we're on the edge of our seats, which almost makes us forgive Harris for putting us through all that waiting.








Passions shift with the sea and sand in 'Coastliners'

By Jackie Pray, special for USA TODAY


I had never been to an island off the coast of France until Joanne Harris put sand in my palms, rocks under my feet and the bracing odor of salt marsh in my nostrils. Reading her fourth novel, Coastliners, is that kind of experience: tactile, sensory, immediate. Coastliners also is an epic tale told on a very small scale.

The story is related by Madeleine "Mado" Prasteau, who returns to her native island of LeDevin after 10 years in Paris. The island, her sullen father, the odd collection of residents and their feuds are almost unchanged. Two villages, one at the head of the island and the other at the foot, carry on an ancient rivalry stirred by shifting currents and tides that leave the shorelines unstable.

The tides have brought a sandy beach to the village of La Houssinière and with it a few tourists and relative wealth. But the tides threaten the very existence of the village of Les Salants.

"One island, a single beach; a happy accident of tides and currents; a hundred thousand tons of ancient sand, stubborn as rock, gilded by a thousand envious glances into something more precious than gold dust. Certainly it has made the Houssins wealthy, although we both know — Houssins and Salannais alike — how easily, how arbitrarily things could have been different.

"An altered current, drifting a hundred meters to the left or the right. A degree shift in the prevailing wind. ... Any one of these things at any time could bring about a cataclysmic reversal."

It is the endeavor to reverse fortunes — the villagers' bold assault on tides and sand — that drives the story. And it's here that Harris shows her strength, as she deftly arranges iconic symbols — the island, sand, tides, religion, family, rivalry, greed, betrayal, redemption — like pretty pieces of sea glass. The story is simple, although the telling of it reveals a complex dialogue on isolation and community.

The love story is complicated by lies and long-held secrets that twist the plot. The main characters are vivid, complex and sometimes formidable, and the minor characters are engaging. But two villages full of eccentric personalities can get confusing.

Still, Harris, author of Chocolat and Five Quarters of the Orange, has a singular talent for description: "This island has changed shape a thousand times. It staggers on the brink of the Nid'Poule, shedding pieces of itself every year. Sand restores it, washing from La Jetée curling around the island like a mermaid's tail, moving imperceptibly from one side to the other in curds of slow foam, turning on itself, sighing, rolling over. Whatever else may change, there will always be sand."



Sunday, September 15, 2002

It takes two villages to tell Harris' story
Reviewed by Regan McMahon, Chronicle Assistant Book Editor


By Joanne Harris


Joanne Harris' trademark is depicting French village life. She's illuminated villagers' petty rivalries and bitter feuds and their dire consequences in previous novels, including "Chocolat," which became an Oscar- nominated movie, and last year's best-seller, "Five Quarters of the Orange."

Her latest novel, "Coastliners," again charts the struggles and villainy of a small number of people confined to a small space, but here Harris turns the claustrophobia and paranoia up a notch: These villagers must suffer their co- existence on an island.

Basedall as different from the other islsins and Salannais have hated each other for generations, squabbling , money, fishing rights and cuckoldry. "If an Houssin can cheat a Salannais, he will. If a Salannais manages to get the better of an Houssin, the whole village shares in the triumph."

Into this nasty mix comes Madeleine ("Mado") Prasteau, daughter of the Salannais boat builder GrosJean Prasteau, whose mainlander mother took her away to Paris when she was 10. Now, after her mother's death, she has returned at age 20. Mado is our narrator, and she fills us in on every character in both villages, as well as every long-held prejudice and family tragedy that has marked the enclosed communities.

It strains credibility that a 10-year-old would perceive, let alone understand, the betrayals, disappointments and grudges of grown-ups. The notion that she would remember them in infinite detail as an adult, after having not stepped one foot on the island in 10 years, is a stretch, to say the least.

Be that as it may, Mado strides off the ferry into her bitter, taciturn father's house unannounced and plunges into island politics. She immediately starts to stir things up, earning the nickname La Poule ("The Hen"), "always clucking over something."

Mado quickly discovers that Les Salants had not fallen on hard times because its local saint had abandoned it (the popular theory). The flooding and loss of sand was caused by the extension of a dyke in La Houssiniere. That village's richest and savviest businessman, Claude Brismand, had engineered a change in the currents three years before, subtly rerouting the sand from Les Salants right to the front of his thriving hotel. He essentially stole the beach. Now Mado and another outsider, a charming English drifter named Flynn, devise a plan to secretly build a reef in Les Salants and steal it back.

But the novel is about a lot more than sand and prosperity. The reef is completed by the book's midpoint, so there's more to Harris' agenda than reversal of fortune. The novel is really about relationships. That of Mado and Flynn, who reluctantly become lovers; Mado and GrosJean, whose dark secrets have left him speech-

less; GrosJean and Brismand, whose link is fully revealed only in the final pages.

It's also about identity. Some people, it turns out, are not who they seem to be.

In keeping with the setting, Harris' prose is full of marine metaphors. In describing the elusive Flynn, she writes: "There was an ambiguity in him, in spite of his easy ways, a place at the center of him to which I was never invited. It was unsettling, like a shallow under deep water. Nevertheless, like all deeps, it drew me."

There's plenty of action in "Coastliners." An annual religious procession into the sea ends in disaster; fishing boats are smashed on the rocks; heroic rescues succeed and fail.

Rain and waves lash the struggling villagers as they face their dangers. When the Salannais finally go along with Mado and Flynn's plan to beat Brismand at his own game, it's uplifting to see the fractious villagers put old hatreds aside and band together, working tirelessly to build their reef and gussy up the village for the expected tourists.

The complex layers of relationships are ultimately uncovered, but along the way, the explanation of the issues at stake and ruminations over the limited options for redressing wrongs get repetitive. But maybe that's an intentional device in a novel of tides. Waves roll in one after the other, day after day, relentlessly stressing the same theme. If the reader gets a claustrophobic twinge when the villagers tread the same worn pathways down to the sea and over old hurts, maybe it's just a case of island fever.

Readers who have loved Harris for her ability to convey whole worlds and emotions through the potable, edible occupations of her characters may find the details of winches and keels, oyster boats and lobster pots in "Coastliners" less delicious that those of wine ("Blackberry Wine"), candy ("Chocolat") or crepes ("Five Quarters of the Orange"). But she still knows how to create a multilayered story, even if she cooks it up on a wind-whipped beach instead of in a cozy kitchen.



Sheer Gaul

Stuart Jeffries abhors the hackneyed depiction of France in Joanne Harris's Coastliners, a shallow novel full of crass caricature

Saturday March 9, 2002
The Guardian

Joanne Harris
479pp, Doubleday, £12.99

Le Devin, an island so small that it is only a bicycle ride from one end to the other, consists of two feuding villages. At one end is the thriving La Houssinière, with its ferry port, fish-packing plant, campsite, beach, smug locals and resident scheming businessman. To get around (there's a twee map in the front of this book), you might try hiring a bicycle from the stereotypical patron of the Chat Noir cafe, who is looking at you narrowly as he leans in his doorway smoking a Gitane. "Bof," he will say with a Gallic shrug. "I have no bicycles. What for should I have bicycles?" Boo to him, and to all those other stuck-up Houssins, too. Boo!

On the other side of the island is Les Salants, not so much a village as a row of dilapidated fishermen's cottages menaced by coastal erosion and populated by gloomy old coves. Like their enemies acrossh! And the tide is going to turn for them, quite literally, and they will get their revenge on the Houssins. Quite literally!

Such, at least, is the simplistic ethico-physical terrain that Harris has mapped out in her new novel. At the outset she has the gall to say that Le Devin has "a character entirely its own, dialects, food, traditions, dress all as different from the other islands as they are from mainland France". But this character remains unexpressed in the rest of the book (except for the above-mentioned delicacies and a loose-fitting nautical top, which hardly constitute a cultural identity). Rather, Le Devin remains a little bit of rustic France uncontaminated by reality; it is not beset by ethnic strife, congestion, dog crap, nuclear power plants, encroaching globalisation, or indeed intellectual life - those characteristics of the real modern France. In this, Coastliners ' chief appeal is to those Channel-hopping Britons who want to visit France, strip-mine it of its fine wines and fruit tarts, and return home blissfully ignorant of what it is really like.

But at least Harris is consistent: in her trilogy of food novels, she created a commodified and stereotypical rural France, seductive to those who enjoyed Peter Mayle or who want second homes in a country that they don't really want to understand. She has created a literary sub-genre, as lucrative as chick- or lad-lit, though more cynical than all but the worst examples of either. Brittany Ferries should sponsor her; the French government should take out a contract on her to stop her writing books that drive Britons - quite literally - to settle in Cahors or Provence.

The drama starts when Madeleine (Mado) Prasteau, a painter from Paris, comes to the island armed with sketchpad and big-city sass. Harris's fans will recognise this opening gambit - the outsider who descends on a cutesy backwater and shakes things up - because she's played it three times before. In her Whitbread-shortlisted Chocolat, Vianne Rocher arrived in the sleepy village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, opened a chocolate shop and seduced all the Catholics into her pagan world of pleasure. In the sequel, Blackberry Wine, jaded Jay Mackintosh, a second-rate English sci-fi writer, moved to Lansquenet from England, inspired by the eponymous drink. And in Five Quarters of the Orange, Framboise arrived at a little Loire-side village to set up a restaurant using a recipe book written by her mother.

Like Framboise, Mado is no stranger to her village. She finds her childhood home threatened, both by the sea and by the machinations of the aforementioned businessman, whom Harris describes as having a "bombastic moustache" and a voice "as rich and expensive as good wine". If we can imagine him at all, it is as a caricature who cannot grow beyond the limits Harris has set him. Distressingly, this is true of all her characters.

It is wicked Brismand who has deprived Les Salants of its beach and threatened the Salannais with oblivion. His expensive breakwater shelters La Houssinière's beach, that generator of tourism and wealth. But thanks to a charismatic Irish drifter called Flynn, Mado manages to change all that. Together they galvanise the Salannais to build a reef of old tyres and concrete to change the tide for Les Salants, thus proving several tired adages all at once, namely "No man is an island" (Harris quotes this at the start), "To see a world in a grain of sand..." (this too), and the one about stuff always coming back. You know - tides, karma.

This is ghastly enough, but the romantic storyline is worse. Even those who don't read Mills & Boon will detect early that Flynn, the tousle-haired eye-candy who harbours A Secret, will impress his charms on Mado at some point during this chunky book. After all, most of the other contenders are small, unattractive and quite possibly inbred. The only question is when Harris, unskilled at the arousing dynamics of sexual deferral in romantic fiction, will get the pair to get it on. This takes too many pages, during which she allows Mado, who narrates, to deploy a few clunking nautico-erosion figures to account for her growing interest. Flynn causes "a gradual erosion of my defences which left me baffled". Later, she finds his mysteriousness seductive: "It was unsettling, like a shadow under deep water. Nevertheless, like all deeps it drew me."

By a strange equivalence, like all shallows, Harris's book repels me. It doesn't (and this is the worst thing one can say of it) have the courage of its own cynicism. It refuses to plunge properly into genre fiction but remains sniffily aloof, convinced that it is true literature, rather than pulp. Like someone getting belated compunctions at an orgy, Harris is irksome company.

But then, Harris is not writing for me. Who is she writing for? The French? Hardly. They would despise her vision of their homeland. There are French writers such as Philippe Delerm and Daniel Pennac - of negligible popularity this side of the Channel - who get all gooey about a hackneyed France. But when, say, Delerm eulogises the Tour de France or the first mouthful of French beer, his writing is charged with real feeling and love for France. Nothing so fond or so appealing animates Coastliners.

No matter. The film rights to Coastliners have been sold and Harris will write the script. It remains only to suggest the cast. Hopefully, Juliette Binoche (who starred in the yucky film of Chocolat) will not be available, and instead it could be acted entirely by non-French people. Dame Judi could reprise her irascible coastal local from the adaptation of The Shipping News; Flynn could be barrel-chested Brendan Fraser in a curly red wig; Mado could be Jennifer Aniston from Friends with a daft accent; all those aesthetically challenged EastEnders extras could play the islanders. The French would hate it, as would anyone else who loves France, but it would make a great deal of money for Harris. And that is the important thing.






Joanne Harris
ISBN: 0060958014

   --- Reviewed by Heather Grimshaw


You can almost feel the sand between your toes as you read COASTLINERS. And yet this new novel from Joanne Harris, award-winning author of CHOCOLAT, is far from a typical beach read. Set on a small French island, the story revolves around a handful of families that dictate every aspect of life there with the notable exception of the tides. And, as they soon discover, even that power may be within their reach.

COASTLINERS is a potpourri of mystery, romance, and suspense. Readers follow in the footsteps of Madeleine or "Mado," a young woman who returns to her island home to a silent father and a community that is quickly slipping into the sea. An artist whose subject matter has always been the island, Mado returns to Les Salants from Paris seeking a sense of home, of family, of belonging.

Once again exploring the inner-workings of community, of who fits in and why, Harris deftly imparts deep-rooted feelings of loss with those of revenge to the inhabitants of Les Salants, a town where historical feuds fester and faith in a Saint overrides a sense of independent action.

Though readers may stumble on similar sounding names of an ever-expanding cast of characters, the compelling plot --- complete with unexpected twists and turns --- makes the story well worth the read. The power of charm in its seediest of contexts, the destructive effects of misdirected love, and the manipulative power of human nature work to pull at and repair the tiny island community of Les Salants. At the story's end, characters emerge with a renewed sense of direction and readers feel as though they've taken a dip into the deep end of a French island pool. Harris treats readers to descriptions of Les Salants and its residents that seem almost tangible. You can see the glittery pieces of sand as they build on the beach and taste the salt from the sea.

Harris strikes gold in this new novel, which catapults readers into the disheveled lives of one family that exists on an island of its very own. Carrying the expectations of a deceased mother and the guilt of leaving her forlorn father on Les Salants, Mado struggles to strike a balance between independence and familial reconciliation. Readers of CHOCOLAT may recognize familiar themes of self-discovery and shedding veils of the past in COASTLINERS. Yet unlike the dark element to CHOCOLAT, COASTLINERS imparts a sense of possibility in its 344 pages and leaves readers with a desire to know more about the about the fate of the Salannaise.


February 25, 2001

Books in Brief: Fiction & Poetry


By Joanne Harris.
Morrow, $24.

In Joanne Harris's second novel -- her first, ''Chocolat,'' was turned into the recent film with Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp -- we meet Jay Mackintosh, a 37-year-old British novelist who overcomes an extreme case of writer's block by rusticating in the French countryside and cuddling up with the mysterious and beautiful young widow next door. Jay's first novel garnered the kind of critical attention and strong sales that signal the start of a brilliant career. But after the frenzy dies down, Jay is unable to produce anything of the same caliber for 14 years. On a whim, he buys a farmhouse in the rural village of Lansquenet and quickly moves there. He leaves behind his life in London with his too-trendy girlfriend, Kerry, who works in television. Woven throughout the novel are flashbacks about an old man whom Jay adored in his youth and who was the hero of his first novel, a mystical gardener and winemaker named Joe Cox. When Jay was 12, Joe sealed their unlikely friendship by pointing out that they must be near-relatives: ''Cox and Mackintosh. Both apples, aren't we?'' Harris has an irritating habit of anthropomorphizing the wine associated with Joe; in one scene, ''a tiny chuckle emerged from the bottle's throat.'' Worse, too many clichés, usually uttered by Joe, attempt to pass as deep thoughts: ''Sometimes real and imaginary are the same thing after all''; ''It's not what things look like that matters. It's what's inside.'' (We even get ''Home is where the heart is.'') The point that Joe has perhaps too much magic and Jay too little is made more than once. Marise, the widow next door and the subject of gossip in the village, ultimately reveals her own preposterous tale of woe. From the moment he lands in Lansquenet, Jay's typewriter is humming. Life in small-town France has given Jay his groove back. If only real life were so simple.




July 1, 2001



By Joanne Harris.
Morrow, $25.

We meet the odd and occasionally likable heroine of Joanne Harris's unsettling new novel, ''Five Quarters of the Orange,'' late in her life. Framboise Dartigen, a stoic widow, is almost 65 and living a shadow life in the small French farmhouse she and her family abandoned after a mysterious tragedy that took place during the German occupation in World War II. The story starts slowly. ''I know. I know,'' Framboise says. ''You want me to get to the point. But this is at least as important as the rest, the method of telling and the time taken to tell.'' Having returned as an old woman, no longer recognizable to the families in the village that last saw her at 9, Framboise opens up a restaurant, using her mother's recipes. All might be well, until Framboise begins to decode what happened so many years ago by reading the tortured scribblings of her mother, hidden in an album she bequeathed to her. Much as she did in her most recent novel, ''Blackberry Wine,'' Harris goes back and forth in time here, telling the story of both the adult Framboise and the child, known as Boise. The child's story is the more involving and authentic; the narrative slows when it returns to Framboise and the often languid unfolding of her mother's dark secret. Unlike the mouthwatering sweets dispensed so magically in Harris's first novel, ''Chocolat,'' the oranges of this title have ominous overtones. The child Framboise brings them surreptitiously into the house because the very smell of them triggers her troubled mother's migraines -- and buys the Dartigen children several hours of peace when she takes to her bed. As promised, Harris takes her time to get to the point of ''Five Quarters of the Orange,'' but the ending is unexpectedly sweet and powerful, a reward for the patient reader.