Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Review: Chocolat by Joanne Harris

“Chocolat” sounds like the perfect book for a chocoholic like myself, and I was thrilled to find a copy in our local library (their collection of English books is small but somewhat eccentric; you never know what you're going to find. That's why I love going there - it's an adventure!). I saw the film based on the book some years ago, and remember it being a lovely feel-good movie that makes you want to try your hand in the art of chocolate making. But even though I was familiar with the story, I still wanted to read the book.

Vianne Rocher, a vagabond chocolatier, and her daughter settle in a small French town. As outsiders, they encounter prejudice and suspicion – but who could resist chocolate? With a bit of magic and lots of joie de vivre, lives are about to change...

The story has two narrators: Vianne with her sensuality and lust for life and the local priest, who sees chocolate (and indeed any and all enjoyment and indulgence) as something sinful. One of the novel's themes could be said to be Christianity vs paganism, but that is not at all everything this book is about. Prejudice/tolerance and belonging/rootlesness are other prevalent themes, as is finding courage to live (and, perhaps, to die) on your own terms.

The descriptions are beautiful and sensual (yes, you will crave pralines and truffles and chocolate cake and chocolate almonds and pain au chocolat and mocha with kahlua... and dozens of other mouth-watering treats). I especially loved the parts where chocolate, “the food of the gods - - - the bitter elixir of life” was described, and where cooking acquired an air of mysticism or a kind of alchemy:

There is a kind of sorcery in all cooking: in the choosing of ingredients, the process of mixing, grating, melting, infusing and flavouring, the recipes taken from ancient books, the traditional utensils – the pestle and mortar with which my mother made her incense turned to more homely purpose, the spices and aromatics giving up their subtleties to a baser, more sensual magic. And it is partly the transience of it that delights me; so much loving preparation, so much art and experience put into a pleasure which can last only a moment, and which only a few will ever fully appreciate.”

(Sensual magic! I will remember that the next time cooking feels like a chore.) 

The novel has more depth than the film and is also more melancholy. The way that the characters are haunted by their past becomes more poignant, and the themes of love and loss, of having to give up something precious, are central. At the same time, though, it is a celebration of fleeting moments and reminds the reader of how important it is to enjoy those moments and life's little pleasures.

If I had to offer criticism, I'd say that the priest's narrative was somewhat repetetive (but then, I suspect that was on purpose: to underline his obsessive-compulsive thoughts) and, although the characters were interesting and complex, I never felt as close to any of them as I would have wished. Even so, "Chocolat" ranks as the best book I've read this year so far (and that makes me very happy: last year wasn't very good, book-wise - perhaps this one will be better!).

Like a luxury chocolate praline, this novel is sweet, delicious and satisfying – but also complex with some deeper, darker notes. It left me wanting more.

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