Even Bit­ter is Sweet

The char­ac­ters in Joanne Har­ris’s ‘Cho­co­lat’ se­ries have aged, but the sweet­ness hasn’t ex­pired

India Today - - LEISURE - —Anu Prab­hakar

IIn Joanne Har­ris’s lat­est book, The Straw­berry Thief, the fourth in­stal­ment in the suc­cess­ful ‘Cho­co­lat’ se­ries, we re­turn to the fic­tional French town of Lan­squenet-sous-Tannes where Har­ris’s re­cur­ring hero­ine, the witch and choco­latier Vianne Rocher, now lives with her “spe­cial child” Rosette. Her el­der daugh­ter, Anouk, stays in Paris with her boyfriend, caus­ing Rocher much heartache.

The novel opens with the death of the el­derly florist Nar­cisse who, though bor­der­line rude to the towns­folk, was fond of Rosette. He also made no se­cret of his an­tipa­thy to the church, so when he ap­points curé Francis Rey­naud as the ex­ecu­tor of his will, the priest likens it to a prac­ti­cal joke. Terms of the will are re­vealed, in­clud­ing the fact that Nar­cisse has be­queathed 16 hectares of oak­wood to Rosette. Livid, his shrewd daugh­ter Michèle Mon­tour, who had her sights trained on the in­her­i­tance, vows to chal­lenge it.

Nar­cisse also leaves a writ­ten confession for Rey­naud which, while re­veal­ing his un­happy child­hood, also in­ten­si­fies feel­ings of guilt in Rey­naud over a past deed. A mys­te­ri­ous tat­too artist sets up shop in town, evok­ing fear and sus­pi­cion in Rocher, who takes a vow of her own.

Har­ris deftly weaves an at­mos­phere of in­trigue: there’s the tat­tooist’s fan­tas­ti­cal par­lour with mir­rors that can play a mind trick or two, Rey­naud’s inner tur­moil, the truth about Rosette and the ever-present wind. If Rocher was the friendly stranger in ‘Cho­co­lat’, here she is dis­trust­ful be­fore com­ing to terms with the bit­ter­sweet re­al­i­sa­tion of having to let her chil­dren go. It’s been 20 years since ‘Cho­co­lat’ and the new novel re­flects the cur­rent re­al­i­ties of the town: once sus­pi­cious of strangers, half the vil­lage’s in­hab­i­tants are now in­ex­pli­ca­bly drawn to the tat­too par­lour. Young­sters silently plot to fly the nest even as their hope­ful mothers drop by the choco­latier for a cup of hot cho­co­late and gos­sip.

Fans of the se­ries will de­vour the book, al­though oth­ers may want to read pre­vi­ous nov­els to get a com­plete grasp of the plot. For its re­lat­able themes and Har­ris’s en­gag­ing writ­ing, The Straw­berry Thief is worth a read.

THE STRAW­BERRY THIEF Joanne Har­ris ORION `599; 368 pages

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