“life is on loan, and all the things we find on the way – lovers, children, happiness – have to be given back in the end.”
The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris, is the fourth book in a series that started twenty years ago with Chocolat. It is gently paced but with an underlying darkness, a hint of magic unleashing powers difficult to control. At the story’s centre is a young girl whose independence has been stymied by her mother’s love. The instinct to protect generates fear – for the future of parent as much as child. In many ways this is a coming of age tale across two generations. It is about a need for self-determination and finding the strength to let go.
Vianne Rocher is running her chocolaterie in the sleepy French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, living above the shop with her sixteen year old daughter, Rosette. Her older daughter, Anouk, is now in Paris with her boyfriend and is much missed. Rosette’s father, Roux, remains in his barge moored on the Tannes, restless but still a part of the family’s lives. The residents of Lansquenet are little changed – older of course but still thriving on gossip and its cause. Some changes though are inevitable – time cannot be held still, even here.
The story opens a week into Lent with the death of Narcisse, who owns the flower shop opposite the chocolaterie. His daughter is incensed to discover that he has left a patch of woodland to Rosette. Vianne’s younger daughter is regarded as a simpleton because she cannot speak in a way others can understand and is often restless when frustrated. Her skills at drawing go unregarded despite the stories they tell.
“Maman always says that stories are what keep us alive; the stories people tell us, and scatter like thistledown on the wind. And stories are all that’s left when we’re gone”
Narcisse leaves his story to the local priest, Reynaud, who struggles to read the hand written pages bequeathed with anything other than fear over what they may reveal about him. Since he was a young boy Reynaud has carried a terrible secret. If revealed he believes the life he has built in Lansquenet will be destroyed.
Told from the points of view of Reynaud, Vianne and Rosette, the ripples created by the old man’s death bring with them adjustments to the village dynamic that Vianne vehemently resists. Once a free agent, travelling with the wind, she is now fearful that the roots she has put down will not be enough to hold her daughters within her sphere. Anouk may have moved away but Vianne plans to hold fast to Rosette by whatever means necessary.
When a stranger sets up a business in the old flower shop, Vianne senses a challenge to her powers. Rosette, along with many of the villagers, is drawn to the stranger and what she can offer them. Vianne can see only a threat to Rosette’s continuing need for her. She vows to drive the stranger away and seeks allies.
The story unfolds around the strands of love, fear, greed and tolerance. Scattered between the present day happenings is the text of Narcisse’s history, gradually told and adding depth. There are obvious comparisons but mostly this older story offers an understanding of the long term repercussions of even the best intended actions.
A story of parents and their children; about the power shifts across generations; of clipping the wings of those who live with a need to soar.
Beautifully written with rich descriptions, especially of chocolate and the magic it can generate. This is a darkly delicious and emotionally satisfying read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion.