‘Fairy tale’ is what would spring to mind if I were asked to describe Joanne Harris’ Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, which continues the story of Vianne Rocher, who we first met in Chocolat and then in its sequel, The Lollipop Shoes. This latest instalment is slightly grittier than its predecessors – there’s less magic and witchery, and more social realism, centred on the topical and controversial issues like attitudes towards women, and conflict between Moslem immigrants and Christian residents in the small (and frequently small-minded) village of Lansquenet. But in the end it’s people who matter, and the wickedness that must be overcome is created by a man’s nature and has nothing to do with religion or race.
And if you’re expecting a comforting, cosy read don’t worry because that’s exactly what you’ll get: reality may intrude in this novel, but it doesn’t dominate. The overall tone is as enchanting as ever and there’s warmth and affection for humanity as good battles against evil on the banks of the Tannes in the idyllic French countryside.
You don’t need to have read the first two books to appreciate Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé, but knowing the backstory helps to set the scene and understand the characters. Harris is an astute writer who clearly understands that too much re-hashing of the past is not only boring, but destroys the dramatic tension of the work in hand.
Here Vianne returns to Lansquenet eight years after her first visit, answering a plea for help from beyond the grave. She has no idea what awaits her, but she cannot ignore a letter written by her friend Armande before her death. When she arrives in Lansquenet with her daughters Anouk and Rosette she finds everything has changed. The tumbledown buildings in Les Marauds, the ‘slum’ quarter of the village, now provide homes and businesses for an ever-growing North African community, and a mosque challenges the power of the church. The initial friendship and tolerance that existed between new and old has turned sour, and there’s a feeling of menace and distrust as a mysterious black-clad woman walks the streets…
Worse still, Vianne’s old adversary Father Reynaud is balanced on the edge of disaster, in danger of losing everything he holds dear, so the one-time enemies find themselves forming an unlikely alliance as they seek to restore harmony to the divided community.
Once again the novel is told from two different viewpoints, with chapters narrated by Vianne and the priest, and many of the themes and elements are the same as those in the earlier books. There’s the wind that blows through the village changing lives, and Vianne’s ability to reach into people’s hearts, to see their true colours, and her desire to give them what they really want. But she finds it more difficult to know what she wants from life.
Food, prepared and eaten with love, is as central to this novel as it is in much of the author’s other work. There are the chocolates of course, flavoured with coconut, with rose and cardamom, with chilli to warm the heart and bring courage. There are the peaches of the title, with their sleepy, end-of-summer scent, and the jam and pastries Vianne makes with them. And in the home of Vianne’s Moslem friends she catches the exotic scents of anise and almond and rosewater and chickpeas cooked in turmeric, and chopped mint, and toasted cardamom, and sesame pastries fried in oil ‘flower-shaped and brittle and perfect with a glass of mint tea’.
A Maghrébin woman tells Vianne that during Ramadan everyone fasts, but they think about food, buy food, prepare food in readiness for the after-sunset feasts – and dream about food when they sleep. It sounds a bit like me when I’m dieting or in thin mode and I become totally obsessed by food, and spend hours planning what I will eat! Vianne herself sees cooking as a kind of alchemy, and wonders if conflicts could be solved by people talking as they share food, and perhaps she has a point and people should eat together rather fighting. It’s a nice thought, but unlikely to happen I suppose.
Anyway, Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé is an easy read. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, with some wonderfully drawn characters, and is well paced with a plot that races along, and it’s a book I’ll read again – it’s the kind of novel I’ll turn to on a grey day, when the world seems against me, and I want my spirits lifting without having to think too deeply about anything.