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Friday, 30 March, 2001, 16:09 GMT 17:09 UK
Bitter antidote to Chocolat
Joanne Harris
Harris was a French teacher when she wrote Chocolat
By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy

For those who complained about the "sickly sweetness" of the movie Chocolat, a bitter anecdote is on hand from Joanne Harris - the author of the book on which the Oscar-nominated blockbuster is based.

Harris' latest novel Five Quarters of the Orange is billed as having "darker themes" than Harris has touched on before.

This is certainly true.

cover of Five Quarters of the Orange
Five Quarters is a return to the gothic novels of Harris's early career
Even if Chocolat as written by Harris was a sharper and more nuanced work than the film, it was still a romantic fairytale.

And Blackberry Wine, the novel before this one, was also a heart-warming story of love and identity.

Five Quarters of the Orange is also about identity and redemption through love but they are won at a cost.

This novel is perhaps more akin to the gothic novels Harris wrote before Chocolat than her more recent works.

It is the story of a woman blinded to love by her own mother who was unable to show her affection.

Framboise - who narrates the story - may be named after raspberry liqueur but she is no sweetie.

She lives incognito in the small French town where she grew up, terrified that her neighbours will discover who she is.

Joanne Harris bibliography
Blackberry Wine 2000
Chocolat 1999
Sleep Pale Sister 1993
The Evil Seed 1989

A "stony secret" hovers in her past, concerning her mother Mirabelle, the kind of woman who inspires cold fear in her children and suffers migraines accompanied by the scent of orange.

Five Quarters is the unfolding story of this secret and reads like a thriller at times.

You get the feeling that this is a story the narrator is compelled to tell, though it does not come easily.

It alternates between present day France and the occupation years of World War II in the same town.

Harris gives a clear-sighted view of war in a small town - the collaborators are mundane, the resistance is confused and the tragedies are very real but not at all glorious.

Consequences of Collaboration

The children are unsure about who is on what side and have only vague ideas about the consequences of their collaboration with the Germans in their midst.

The Germans for their part are ducking and diving, cheerfully blackmailing and extorting the locals.

The "real war" seems very far away, hinted at with food shortages or when Jewish Madame Petit leaves town in the dead of night or the schoolteacher disappears after a radio is discovered at his house.

The war only comes crashing in when 10 villagers are shot in retribution for the murder of a German soldier - the episode which haunts the whole book and the life of Framboise.

Terrible Circumstances

This book portrays excellently how horror can be mundane and circumstantial, how ordinary life continues under the most terrible of circumstances and how the personal takes precedence over the grand global event.

Mirabelle is a mother so hardened to life that the only way she can show her love is through offering food to her children and Framboise is a child hopelessly in love with the only adult to offer her any sort of attention - a German soldier.

Juliette Binoche
Juliette Binoche starred as Vivian Rocher in Chocolat
This is a childhood where "every touch was a spark which hissed with static".

The sumptious descriptions of food are a welcome distraction.

The secrets of the past are revealed in Mirabelle's scribbled notes in her handwritten recipe book.

Her attempts to win her children over are invariably culinary and usually unsuccessful - though that is not the fault of the food, which sounds heavenly.

I was relieved that Framboise eventually finds a tentative redemption in her love for a childhood friend who she once belittled.

Love among the over-60s is so rarely written about - let alone this brand of slow-burning, faintly bad-tempered love - that it is worth reading the novel for that alone.

My problem was that I never warmed enough to Framboise to care that much.

Five Quarters of the Orange is published by Doubleday on 5 April

See also:

12 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Juliette's sweet tooth
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