Nicky Pellegrino sees a film sequel in Joanne Harris' latest novel.
She has published 12 other novels but Chocolat remains the book UK author Joanne Harris is best known for and its heroine Vianne Rocher her most popular creation. Not surprisingly there have been follow-ups. The first, The Lollipop Shoes, was an overwrought, magic-infused battle between good and evil set in Paris that I didn't enjoy nearly as much. The latest, Peaches For Monsieur Le Cure (Doubleday, $37.99), is a return to form, partly because it's located back in Lansquenet, the fictional village in southwest France where Vianne created such a stir first time round. There are common themes here - intolerance, prejudice, religion, outsider figures - but while Chocolat felt almost timeless, this new instalment is very much of the moment.
The story begins with Vianne living on a houseboat in Paris with her strong-but-silent lover, Roux, when a letter arrives from beyond the grave. It's from her old friend Armande, (via her grandson Luc), and summons Vianne back to Lansquenet, implying she is needed there. This may appear a clumsy device, but in the whimsical world of a Harris novel - where people are driven places by turbulent winds - it seems entirely reasonable. So, Vianne leaves Roux and takes a train back to Lansquenet with her daughters Anouk and Rosette.
She finds the village much changed. A community of Muslims from North Africa has settled on one side of the river and tension simmers between them and Vianne's old nemesis, stuffy Catholic priest, Father Reynaud. The building that once housed her beloved chocolaterie has been ruined by fire. Vianne is pitted against a mysterious veiled woman, Ines Bencharki, who is feared and distrusted by people on either side of the River Tannes, both Muslim and Catholic.
It becomes clear that several people in Lansquenet need Vianne's help: the priest, who stands accused of a hate crime he didn't commit, the young Muslim girl he rescues from drowning herself in the river, perhaps even Ines Bencharki.
Set shortly before France banned face-hiding burqas and niqab, in many ways this is a brave novel. Joining magical realism to this most contemporary theme could have gone quite wrong for Harris but she's found a balance. Yes, it's excruciatingly political correct at times and quite shouty in its message - that whatever our religion, culture or food tradition, we're not so different really. There isn't nearly enough chocolate in my opinion. But still this novel's charms outweigh its flaws.
There is plenty of drama and humour, sensual descriptions of food, a captivating portrait of small-town French life; there is enough magic and mysticism to keep things interesting but it isn't overdone, and the character of Vianne is as colourful and conflicted as ever.
Chocolat the movie was a huge hit and I think this book would make a winning big screen follow-up. Sadly, there isn't much of role in it for Johnny Depp.