'Chocolat' characters face a mini holy war
For readers with sweet memories of Joanne Harris’ 1999 bestseller Chocolat, the beloved novelist has served up another delicious literary treat. With Peaches for Father Francis, Harris returns to the charming French village of Lansquenet, and of course, so do many of Chocolat’s cast of characters, including mercurial matriarch Vianne; her partner, the enigmatic Roux; Vianne’s daughters, Anouk and Rosette; and the cantankerous yet endearing Father Francis Reynaud.
The story begins when Vianne receives a letter beckoning her back to the village from her current home aboard a houseboat in Paris. Though Roux declines to accompany Vianne, she is undeterred, following her heart and returning to a Lansquenet fraught with cultural tensions between the French townspeople and their new neighbors: a burgeoning community of Moroccan immigrants.
Indeed, Harris bravely embraces the messiness of a miniature holy war, with Catholics and Muslims alternating between fascination and fear regarding each other’s disparate religions and cultures. Surprisingly, Father Francis—her former nemesis—is now an unlikely ally in solving a mystery that threatens to destroy everything precious to both the French villagers and their increasingly restless new neighbors.
Harris’ elegant writing coexists alongside a plot that is in many ways a straight-up mystery, albeit one with a sprinkle of romance and a dash of mysticism. It all adds up to a novel that is adept at exploring misconceptions about Islamic traditions like the niqab (the face veil) as well as the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church in Europe. Above all, Harris achieves what many lesser talents have found impossible: mesmerizing readers with a socially relevant plot, without ever becoming cliché, maudlin or forgetting that in the end, she is not a lecturer, but a storyteller.