Title: The Strawberry Thief
Author: Joanne Harris
Publiction Date: 4 April 2019
Return to the world of the multi-million-copy bestselling Chocolat….
Vianne Rocher has settled down. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the place that once rejected her, has finally become her home. With Rosette, her ‘special’ child, she runs her chocolate shop in the square, talks to her friends on the river, is part of the community. Even Reynaud, the priest, has become a friend.
But when old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, the life of the sleepy village is once more thrown into disarray.
The arrival of Narcisse’s relatives, the departure of an old friend and the opening of a mysterious new shop in the place of the florist’s across the square – one that mirrors the chocolaterie, and has a strange appeal of its own – all seem to herald some kind of change: a confrontation, a turbulence – even, perhaps, a murder…
The Strawberry Thief is Harris’ fourth novel in the series set in the small fictional village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, in south-west France. It is published some 20 years after the bestselling Chocolat(the first in the series) which was later adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. I read and loved Chocolat when it was first released back in 1998, however I will admit that I have not yet read the other two books in the series (an omission which I intend to correct as soon as possible!).
The story follows the life of Vianne Rocher and her 16 year old daughter, Rosette. Both charming characters, they have long since settled in Lansquenet, becoming a part of the sleepy community. There is a very clear sense of place throughout the book. Vianne runs her chocolate shop, weaving her delicious form of magic over the local residents, whilst Rosette, her special ‘winter child’, runs free to laugh and draw. Having lost her elder daughter, Anouk, to the bright lights of Paris, all Vianne wants is to keep her younger daughter safe and by her side.
However, their sedate village life is shaken by the sudden death of florist, Narcisse. A quiet man with little time for other people, Narcisse had a soft spot for Rosette and after his death it is discovered that he has left a plot of woodland, his ‘strawberry wood’, to Rosette, a bequest guaranteed to raise the ire of his pushy daughter Michèle who thinks there may be something of value hidden in those woods. Narcisse also leaves a handwritten letter (an atheist’s version of a last confession) for the priest, Reynaud. It is a letter which tells the poignant and tragic tale of Narcisse’s childhood and which will have ramifications for several other characters.
There is further tension in the village with the arrival of tattooist Morganne Dubois, who has taken on the lease to Narcisse’s shop. A mysterious creature, she quickly weaves her own form of magic (or maybe enchantment?) over the village, dividing loyalties as villager after villager visits her shop, leaving with one of her unique designs forever inked on their bodies. Vianne knows that she should be welcoming to this stranger, yet she cannot shake off her lingering doubts as to the tattooist’s motives. Or, are her feelings merely a reflection of her own fear of people moving on without her?
The tale is told from three viewpoints, Vianne, Rosette and Reynaud. Narcisse’s death proves to be the catalyst that triggers some deep moments of self-reflection from those characters: Reynaud’s guilt from his own childhood confession, Vianne’s fear of change and loss, and Rosette’s awareness of the differences between her and her friends. This is an intricately woven story, and the use of those three narrators allows the various plot threads to be gently and gradually entwined to produce a complex and multi-faceted tale.
Set during the weeks of Lent, this is a story of conflict: indulgence and denial; church and atheist; guilt and absolution; summer and winter; friend and foe; a settled life and a life on the wind.
I particularly enjoyed the development of Rosette’s character. The story begins with a naive, wild and unusual girl, one who has never found her voice, to a wise, complex and confident young woman who knows her own mind and wants to find her own feet. As Vianne tells us on more than one occasions, “All children are stolen… We keep them close, as long as we can. But one day, the world will steal them back.” Very wise words.
The story is written with a wonderfully descriptive flair. From the scent of the chocolate beans cooking, to the taste of Vianne’s hot chocolate, and the sound of the whispering wind, the reader will find their senses almost overwhelmed by the sounds, smells and tastes oozing out of the pages. In the 20 years since Chocolat, I had forgotten just how beautiful and evocative Harris’ writing can be. Her biography refers to her having synaesthesia and I wonder if experiencing senses in such a unique fashion maybe influences her ability to create such a sensory experience.
The Strawberry Thief is a beautifully written, poignant and timeless story, full of magic, mysticism and mystery. It is a tale of family, guilt, redemption and transformation, with some darker themes of xenophobia and greed. The Strawberry Thief is a rich and captivating tale, and one which will stay with me for a long time. I would highly recommend it.
Despite being the fourth book in a series, this is a story that has the strength to stand on its own. Although I do now plan to go back and read the second and third books.
I listened to The Strawberry Thief on Audiobook during my commute to and from work. I believe the narration was undertaken by the author herself, which in my opinion adds to the experience as the tale will be told exactly how the author intended. I must admit to finding it a bit difficult to identify the switch in narrators at first, however I soon discovered that I could identify those switches from subtle variations in the writing/speech patterns as I got to know the characters better. I thought the book worked very well in audio format and I thoroughly enjoyed the listening experience.
About the Author
|Photograph from amazon.co.uk|
Joanne Harris is an Anglo-French author, whose books include eighteen novels, three cookbooks and many short stories. Her work is extremely diverse, covering aspects of magic realism, suspense, historical fiction, mythology and fantasy. She has also written a DR WHO novella for the BBC, has scripted guest episodes for the game ZOMBIES, RUN!, and is currently engaged in a number of musical theatre projects.
In 2000, her 1999 novel CHOCOLAT was adapted to the screen, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. She is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, and in 2013 was awarded an MBE by the Queen.
Her hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as ‘mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion’. She is active on Twitter, where she writes stories and gives writing tips as @joannechocolat; she performs in a live music and storytelling show with the #Storytime Band; and works from a shed in her garden at her home in Yorkshire.
She also has a form of synaesthesia which enables her to smell colours. Red, she says, smells of chocolate.
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