“I used to think it was simple, that art. The making of harmless indulgences. But at last I have come to realise that no indulgence is harmless… Forty years a witch and now, at last, I have become a Puritan”.
Hard to believe it’s been twenty years since the publication of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat, the sublime novel that introduced us to French chocolatier, Vianne Rocher, and the sleepy little village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. Such was its impact, the world has never been quite the same place to many who read the mega best-seller that was turned into a box-office hit starring Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench and Johnny Depp. Thankfully, there have been more books in the series since, and the really great news is that the much-anticipated latest instalment, The Strawberry Thief, is every bit as enchanting as the rest.
The Strawberry Thief opens similarly to Chocolat: it is Lent, and Vianne is hard at work crafting her signature chocolate animals in preparation for Lansquenet-sous-Tannes’s Easter celebrations. But much else has changed. The villagers that once shunned Vianne for daring to peddle such indulgent treats have now embraced her as one of their own, and Vianne’s daughter, Anouk, just six when she and her mother moved to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, has flown the nest.
Although Vianne misses Anouk desperately, she is content in the knowledge that her younger daughter, Rosette, will never leave her. Rosette is unusual in many ways – she is sixteen but rarely speaks, and her best friend is a monkey named Bam, who other people cannot see. Vianne knows some of the villagers talk about Rosette behind her back, but she’s grateful for those who are kind, in particular, the old florist, Narcisse, with whom Rosette has struck up an unlikely friendship.
When Narcisse dies, leaving a valuable plot of land to Rosette, the safe little life Vianne has crafted for herself and her daughter is thrown into disarray. Narcisse’s death signals the arrival of his greedy relatives, their eyes firmly fixed on Rosette’s land, as well as the arrival of a mysterious tattooist, who sets up shop in Narcisse’s empty store and draws many of the villagers, Rosette included, under her spell. Then there’s Narcisse’s written confession, a document that stirs up the past and shakes the whole village to its core…
Told primarily from the perspectives of Vianne and Rosette, The Strawberry Thief is a beguiling and deeply moving tale about loving and letting go. Vianne’s story tugs at the heartstrings as she struggles to reconcile Rosette’s increased need for independence with her own desire to keep her beloved daughter safely ensconced in their comfortable life, her experiences mirroring those of countless other parents reluctant to let their children fly the nest.
Rosette taking her first steps along a new path adds a compelling coming-of-age element to the story. A fascinating character, the chapters narrated by the enigmatic teenager provide us with a delightful glimpse of her rich inner life and her hopes for the future. Harris’s luscious, sensual descriptions of food, art and nature are richly detailed – you can practically taste Vianne’s creamy chocolate Easter rabbits and her famed hot chocolate, ‘dark and sweet as sin.’ As always, Harris’s unique way of dusting the pages with a little magic and mystery adds layers of charm and intrigue.
Evocative, immersive and gorgeously written, The Strawberry Thief is not only a wonderful new chapter in Vianne’s story for her legion of fans, but a great standalone read for newcomers to Harris’s delightfully spun tales.
Once under her spell, never forgotten.
Joanne Harris (MBE) was born in Barnsley in 1964, of a French mother and an English father. She studied Modern and Mediaeval Languages at Cambridge and was a teacher for fifteen years, during which time she published three novels, including Chocolat (1999), which was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche.
Since then, she has written 15 more novels, two novellas, two collections of short stories, a Dr Who novella, guest episodes for the game Zombies, Run, the libretti for two short operas, several screenplays, a musical and three cookbooks. Her books are now published in over 50 countries and have won a number of British and international awards.
Joanne is an honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge, has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of Sheffield and Huddersfield, and has been a judge for the Whitbread Prize, the Orange Prize, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science, as well as for the Fragrance Foundation awards for perfume and perfume journalism (for which she also received an award in 2017).