A bittersweet reunion for the characters of 'Chocolat'
On Monday evenings, Chocolat author Joanne Harris and her 14-year-old daughter Anouchka like to shoot teen-agers. Armed with laser rifles, they prowl the strobe-lighted darkness of their local Laser Quest facility in West Yorkshire, England, to deafening rock music, searching for easy prey. "It's quite fun and terribly therapeutic," Harris admits. "I'm not bad and she's pretty good, too; small people are frequently at an advantage because they get the angles. We like to get groups of arrogant young male newbies who are totally humiliated by the idea that they've just been creamed by somebody's mum or by a little girl. It's very funny to watch that."
Clearly, life has turned a page or two for the Cambridge-educated, half-French, half-British novelist whose upbringing in her grandparents' Yorkshire sweetshop inspired the magical world of rebellious chocolatier Vianne Rocher, her young daughter Anouk and her river-gypsy boyfriend Roux. Hollywood, of course, turned Chocolat into an Oscar-nominated film starring French gamine Juliette Binoche and American expat gypsy Johnny Depp.
Harris resisted for years the idea of writing a sequel. But as her own daughter, the inspiration for Anouk, matured to young womanhood and their relationship changed, the idea of exploring their next chapter through Vianne and Anouk suddenly seemed as natural as, well, Laser Quest.
In The Girl with No Shadow, five years have passed since Vianne won her church-versus-chocolate smackdown with Father Reynaud in the French village of Lansquenet. Still a single mom, Vianne now has a second daughter, Rosette. That will come as news to Roux, the toddler's father, who has been incommunicado since Vianne resettled to a new chocolate shop in the Montmartre district of Paris.
"One of the reasons I wrote the book was that I was conscious of living with a young person who had reached a very different stage in life, and it's a good thing to draw from," says Harris. "I wouldn't have written about a teenager without having a teenager."
But it's not Anouk who's in trouble here; it's Vianne. In her quest to forge a stable life for her two girls, she has forsaken her gypsy ways, toned down her dress, abandoned her magic and consented to marry Thierry, a bourgeois blowhard. She has, in effect, lost her shadow by ceasing to be herself.
On the Day of the Dead, a bohemian free spirit named Zozie de l'Alba enters the shop and rekindles the joie de vivre in Vianne and the girls. As Vianne's new assistant, Zozie's ability to glean each customer's secret desires soon has them eating truffles out of her hand. But the enchanting Zozie has a very dark side; she's secretly a highly adept identity thief who intends to sink her claws into the innocent Anouk.
"At a certain point, every parent starts to be conscious of the fact that having a child is very much about being afraid all the time," says Harris. "Because this is really a book about fear and how to deal with that, I wanted this to be something that epitomizes on the most elementary level what a mother is most afraid of, which is having their child taken away."
Harris labored to keep Zozie amorphous and ambiguous, shadowlike really. Her name, derived from the French sosie for mirror image or double, is apt indeed as she slowly assimilates and eventually becomes the Vianne of old.
"She is more of a human computer virus who just infiltrates the story," says Harris. "She just passes from one situation and one life and one person to another and assimilates what she wants and moves on, so her mentality is viral in that respect. She doesn't interact with human beings in the way that normal human beings do."
To add to Vianne's predicament, Roux suddenly blows into town to win her back and reconcile his wandering ways.
"I think a lot of people come of age in this book, including me to a certain extent," Harris admits. "It is very much a story about growing up, and not just Anouk growing up. All the main characters in fact have to investigate who they are and where they're going and what it means to be an individual."
There's also a liturgical symmetry between Chocolat and The Girl with No Shadow.
"What I wanted to do was create a kind of mirror image of Chocolat," explains Harris. "Chocolat starts at the beginning of Lent and moves toward a time of life and rebirth and fun and feasting. This is a story that starts at Halloween and however much it may be heading toward a celebration [Christmas], we all know what it's a celebration of really [death]."
If Chocolat was milk chocolate, The Girl with No Shadow is the darker, more nuanced confection with just a hint of the bitterness that comes of growing up and letting go the indulgences of youth. Readers expecting something closer to How Vianne Got Her Groove Back are in for a surprise.
Those looking for a younger, livelier character will want to check out Runemarks, Harris' recently published fantasy adventure for teens starring Maddy Smith, a witchy young version of Vianne who struggles against the Order, which bears a striking resemblance to the Church. Based on Norse mythology and inspired by the bedtime stories she would conjure for her daughter, the epic fantasy marks the author's first foray into young adult fiction. At least one sequel to Runemarks is in the works.
"This is entirely familiar territory for me; this is the kind of stuff I was writing long before Chocolat, but it didn't get published," she says.
And what of Vianne, Anouk and Rosette? Might we one day savor another cup of Chocolat?
"I don't think this ends the story," Harris says. "With imaginary characters, you have a sense sometimes of there only being one story; you know instinctively that only one story ever happens to Cinderella, while Robin Hood or King Arthur will always have lots and lots of adventures. I think Vianne and Anouk and Rosette are like that; they may well have other events."
Jay MacDonald enjoys his just desserts in Austin, Texas.