‘Witches… Jeez, great. And it was all going so well.’ – Just some of the thoughts that materialised in my slightly irked mind mere moments after reading the first few chapters of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat. Adamant that I was not going to enjoy the rest of the book, having so prematurely resigned myself to the fact that I was to be following the life and times of a hip and happening single witch mother for the next 200 or so pages, I was thrilled to discover that I had, in fact, made a serious misjudgment. Thank heavens. Yes, there are undercurrents of witchcraft, tarot and folklore, however they are not the driving force behind the story, à la Harry Potter and pals. Instead, Chocolat is principally centred around the efforts of a 30-something single mother aspiring to successfully integrate herself and her young daughter into quaint rural French life; all the while trying to avoid stepping on the wrong people’s toes along the way – it is a tale of fitting in and finding one’s place.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at the protagonists. Our leading lady is the charming, yet suitably mysterious Vianne Rocher, who quietly sets up shop in the middle of parochial French village, Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Vianne is not alone in her quest to adapt to rural living after a long stint of temporary urban abodes, as she is accompanied by her delightful 6-year-old daughter, Anouk – owner of a very Pantalamon-esque (see Philip Pullman about that one) animal friend Pantoufle – who serves us well as the voice of innocence and enquiry. On the other side of the fence we find Lansquenet’s resident priest, Francis Reynaud, whose efforts to rid his perfect church-going village of those heathens, the Rochers, come to a rather comical climax. I won’t go into detail as I don’t want to give anything away – you need to read it! – but what I will say is that the whole affair is thoroughly well executed due to Harris’ excellent writing skills. There is a steady and subtle build up over the course of the novel, so that when that glorious moment finally arrives, we are cringing away with the best of them. It is very much a case of chocolate on the chops, as opposed to egg on the face.
If I had to pick a favourite character it would have to be stubborn Armande – an outlandish old dear with a feisty spirit, an affinity for folklore and everything gypsy. I simply love the precious relationship that she shares with her bashful grandson and I find the fact that he bought her red silky underwear for her birthday downright hilarious. Now, one not-so-precious relationship was the ‘coming together’ of Roux and Vianne. I think I can safely say that I did NOT enjoy this at all as it was so totally unnecessary and unbelievable. I mean I realise that Vianne probably hasn’t entertained a gentleman in a fair while – saying that the book only documents a time period of 40 days. How libidinous is this woman?! – but a grizzly red-haired old water dweller? Really?! No, it just wouldn’t happen. Sorry, Joanne.
The entire piece is told from an interesting perspective; interesting in that it is from two perspectives: an alternation between the extremes of Vianne and Francis. Due to the pair voicing opinions that are worlds apart, there was never a problem – when it came to making the distinction of who was narrating – that couldn’t be solved by reading the first 3 lines, thus allowing for smooth continuation in the telling of the story. Also, I’m sure the fact that both voices are centralised around the same plot and close-knit community helped matters. This juxtaposition of ideals was a different and thoroughly engaging way of reading people. On the one hand we had indulgence and the other, abstinence; the unorthodox and the religious in the form of the villager. Some other themes that turned my cogs were: the outsider contemplating one’s own moral views in the face of such opposite insularity; rebuilding one’s image after being chagrined by the clique; the lengths one will go to in order to ‘save face’; the everyday – I absolutely love the way Harris deals with the everyday. It is so tactile, so sensual; the sights, sounds, tastes, aromas. Delicious.
With the word count being 750 I feel that I should end now, and what better way to do it than with my favourite quote of the book, which basically sums it all up far better than I could write:
‘The battle of good and evil reduced to a fat woman standing in front of a chocolate shop, saying, ‘Will I? Won’t I?’ in pitiful indecision.’