I have only read one of Harris’ short stories before, in Stories a few years ago. I hadn’t even noticed she had a collection out until I stumbled across this in the library.
A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String is definitely the sort of book one should stumble across. A miscellanea of tales, from ones where magic is true, or Gods walk the earth, to a duo of elderly ladies who are determined to outwit the staff at their nursing home showing us that magical events happen without true magic. It is the sort of selection that needs reading in front of a fire over Christmastime.
The only one that didn’t ring true was the Twitter ghost, and only then because I have a suspicion that most of that could be programmed maliciously into various social media services now, so I was waiting for the other boot to drop in terms of the realisation that was what it was.
All in, a good selection and one I may be giving as a Christmas present this year.
Harris’s books appear in charity shops frequently, so I find myself buying them as cheap relaxing reads. I couldn’t resist this one when I realised it goes back to Vianne of Chocolat and Lollipop Shoes again.
This has strong parrallels to the original Chocolat, looking at conflict within the traditional rural community of Lansquenet. However this time instead of being set in Lent it is set in Ramadan. But eight years have passed, people have grown up, the community around the chocolate shop has changed and Father Reynaud is possibly no longer The Black Man against whom Vianne has to battle. But the magic still works and communication through food is still at the core of the story.
I was a little worried about how the Islamic component of the story would be handled, especially as at first it felt as though the new community had been brought in purely to provide a different background to Chocolat. Then there was the concern about the new antagonists seeming to be purely from the Islamic community.
Of course Harris moves into a world where life is not that black and white and everyone is shown to have complex motivations driven by plausible experiences, loyalties, guilt, love and fear. I’m still not sure I like the ending: even if it is the only solution it seems too brutal.
Having reread Chocolat, the next book I picked up had to be The Lollipop Shoes, which returns to Vianne and her daughters four years later. They still have a chocolate shop now in Montmartre, but are hiding from themselves and their past in search of permanence and stability. The chocolate shop is not a success, the chocolates are made elsewhere and Anouk is moving away from her mother.
Against this, Zozie turns up in her lollipop shoes and bright character. Another witch, she offers friendship to the family, and helps make the shop something like that in Chocolat. Another tale of unwinding secrets, only this time the secrets belong to Vianne and Anouk more than the shop’s customers.
This is a more substancial book than Chocolat, with the magic being a more key part of the narrative rather than something to help smooth things along. This is mostly Zozie who has no problem with using her talents in spite of repercussions and offers an interesting contrast to Vianne, emphasised by the three-narrator structure of the book, with the two adult women and Anouk all given voices.
Joanne Harris – Chocolat
This is the book which made Harris famous: a tale of chocolate and magic set in rural France in the late twentieth century.
Vianne has blown into the village of Lansquenet on a Mardi Gras parade and decided that this is a good place to try and fight the urge to wander that comes with the changing wind and appearance of the “black man” in the tarot cards. As the book unfolds we learn her secrets, and what she is afraid of. This is set against a backdrop of wider change within the village as the shop acts as a catalyst to enable change within the families resident there, and the history of the village itself and how this is tied to the priest’s own past.
Chocolat is the best book possible to read over the Easter weekend (unless you were hoping for your eggs to last past Easter Monday), looking at the self-denial of lent and the extravagance of the Easter festival itself, and how the church relates to this.