Joanne Harris


"Coastliners"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka OCT 31, 2002)

Joanne Harris' Coastliners is a departure from her Lansquenet stories (Chocolat, Blackberry Wine). She leaves the sleepy French mainland village and all of its upbeat charm and magical realism for a sleepy French island village full of superstition, suspicion, envy, competition, lethargy and - finally - hope.

Read excerptMuch more melancholy and serious, this story centers on Mado Prasteau, a beautiful island native who has been living in Paris with her mother for the past 10 years. When her mother dies, Mado returns to Le Devin to visit her father, GrosJean, with whom she has had no contact over all those years. GrosJean, suffering from endless grief over the death of his younger brother, P'titJean, has gradually fallen into a speechless and solitary pattern of life. While Mado is still single and has always "traveled light," her sister, Adrienne, has done the "right things" in life; she married well and has two boys who become the apple of their grandfather's eye. Tomboyish Mado always strived to fill the empty space of the son GrosJean never had; however, in his old age he seems to be more interested and lively when ultra-feminine Adrienne visits. Coastliners becomes a story about family and the intricate balances between the tenderness and tension therein.

Things might have been different if I had been a boy. GrosJean, like most island men, had wanted sons: sons to work the boatyard, to tend the family grave. Daughters, with all the expense that entailed, were of no interest to Jean Prasteau. A first daughter had been bad enough; a second, four years later, had finally killed what little remained of my parents' intimacy. I grew up trying to atone for the disappointment I had caused, wearing my hair short to please him, avoiding the company of other girls to win his approval. To some degree it had worked; sometimes he would let me come fishing for sea bass in the surf, or take me with him to the oyster beds with pitchforks and baskets. These were precious moments for me; snatched at times when Adrienne and my mother went into La Houssiniere together; hoarded and gloated over in secret.

Shifting between family relationships and community politics, Harris builds a history of the families who inhabit Le Devin. The island is made up of two villages that have been in competition for as long as anyone can remember. The rivalries between the villages mirror the struggles observed between families and within families on the island. La Houssiniere has always prospered more than Les Salants; the beach - the protected sandy Les Immortelles - grows healthier every year while more and more tourists arrive, even as the beach in Les Salants erodes more and more each year to the point that the town floods easily. When Mado returns to Les Salants, she discovers that the working-class families she grew up with are dwindling to a hopeless and grouchy folk, clinging to superstition and ritual. While they are passive and lethargic about their condition and the future, she attempts, many times, to stir them into action with the help of a somewhat mysterious foreigner who has been nicknamed Rouget.

The imagery of Harris' story sinks into readers like a day at the beach; one can almost smell the salty air, feel the wind and expect to find grains of sand stuck in their hair after closing the book. Ebbing and flowing like a tide, the plot starts out slowly and then builds in tension, action and discovery.

In an interview, Harris explained why she continually writes about people in small towns. "I find that small communities often have a great many things in common with each other, as do the stories which happen to them." In this story, the island itself is a character. It changes and develops over time and is the cause of both frustration and celebration. The motto of Le Devin is "everything returns;" like a character with predictable patterns and choices, the island - or nature in general? - seems to have a mind of its own and refuses to be altered or tamed by anyone for long.

Although Harris' story is well written and captures life in a small village, I missed the fairy-tale charm of her earlier works. I had to remind myself that this was a different sort of story, a story more about families in conflict, communities in conflict, and the forces of nature on the lives of humankind. Harris chose to stop being so light and magical and to instead go deeper into relationships and the hardships of a dying community. And with that in mind, Coastliners is truly about how people endure nature and themselves, and how people can affect change if they set aside their differences and work together.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 37 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Coastliners at MostlyFiction.com

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"Blackberry Wine"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka SEP 08 2002)

Joanne Harris' novels read like adult fairy tales: charming, curious and threaded with magical realism. In her second novel, Blackberry Wine , Harris revisits the French village of Lansquenet, the very same village in which mysterious Vianne appeared and set up her controversial chocolaterie in Chocolat , Harris' debut. Indeed, Lansquenet is recognizable in her sophomore piece in many ways; there are recognizable characters from the village in Josephine, Michel Roux, Vianne and Caro, to name a few. There are also similar themes: an outsider coming in and being accepted over time, a single mother raising a young daughter, a misunderstanding between an elderly mother and her daughter, and a grandmother forbidden to see her grandchild.

In spite of its similarities to Chocolat in character and themes, Blackberry Wine stands alone. Readers need not read Harris' books in any particular order to appreciate them.

Jay is a writer in his late 30s, living in London with his much younger and much more successful chic girlfriend, Kerry. Once upon a time, Jay wrote an amazing book called Jackapple Joe , his hugely successful one-hit wonder. He is never able to reproduce the energy or acclaim, and so he writes fantasy and sci-fi under a pen name to make a few bucks. Jackapple Joe was a heightened and nostalgic retelling of Jay's childhood summers spent with his grandparents at Kirby Monckton and the older man on Pog Hill Lane with whom he forged a unique but nurturing relationship. Blackberry Wine acquaints readers with its characters through a series of flashbacks interspersed in the narrative of the present. Joe's folk wisdom and gardening tips endeared him to me as they helped bond him to a young and lonely Jay; Jay's teenage struggles with a neighborhood thug help to shape the adult he becomes.

One morning, after Jay has slept in and makes a very small attempt at working, he notices the mail being delivered and sees, illuminated in golden sunlight, an advertisement for real estate; specifically, a picture of a French chateaux, or "chatto" as Joe called his dream house. The picture is exactly what Joe described as his life's ambition. The advertisement is so enticing that Jay spontaneously buys the estate and moves to Lansquenet on the spot, somehow feeling that Joe is there.

The cellar was dark. The new fixtures had not yet been fitted, and the only lighting was from a dim bulb on the end of a frayed cord. Jay reached for a bottle from the short rack by the stairs.

The Specials moved imperceptibly, shifting, snugging, rubbing up against each other like sleeping cats, purring. Rose Hip '74 began to rattle. A rich golden scent of hot sugar and syrup reached his nostrils. Jay mistook it for the last lovely yellow Sauternes from the other side of the river, the perfect wine to loosen an old woman's tongue, and picked up the bottle with a small sound of satisfaction. "I knew I had one left."

The label was smeared, and in the dimness he did not try to read it. He carried it up the stairs and into the kitchen, opened, poured. A tiny chuckle emerged from the bottle's throat as the wine filled the glass.

The estate, Joe's bottles of homemade liqueur called "The Specials," and the not-so-unreal memories of Joe inspire Jay to write again. He begins writing about Lansquenet and its inhabitants, quizzing Josephine in the café about an especially interesting villager, Marise d'Api, whose land borders his own. After weeks of inspired writing, rewarding hard labor in his gardens, and getting beyond the surface pleasantries of the townspeople, Jay quickly comes to feel that the truth about the villagers and the life he is building for himself are more important than writing the great follow-up novel, that self-fulfillment and contentment in one's life are more alluring to him now than fame and notoriety once were. Life is the true inspiration for art, but, in the end, life is more important to Jay than the art that once helped forge his identity and success.

Blackberry Wine is the sort of book that can be read in a day or two, but is also a book whose characters and setting implant themselves under your skin and don't go away. I found myself suspending disbelief in many sections of the novel, especially when Joe describes his "astral travel" abilities. The fairy tale qualities of the story make it a sweet read rather than a trivial one, and the genuineness of its inhabitants make me want to visit Lansquenet someday… or at least read the next book Harris set in the same French village, Five Quarters of the Orange.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 69 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Blackberry Wine at HarperCollins



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About the Author:

Joanne HarrisJoanne Harris was born in 1964 in Barnsley in the North of England and as a girl lived in her grandparents' candy shop in France. She is the great-granddaughter of a woman known locally as a witch and a healer. Half-French, half-English, she taught French at a school in Northern England. Her novel Chocolat was nominated for the Whitbread Award, one of Britain's most prestigious literary prizes.

Her books are now published in over 40 countries and have won a number of British and international awards. In 2004, Joanne was one of the judges of the Whitbread prize (categories; first novel and overall winner); and in 2005 she was a judge of the Orange prize.

Harris lives in Yorkshire, England with her husband and daughter.
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