A review of Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Peaches for Father Francis
by Joanne Harris
Viking (Penguin)
ISBN 9780670026364, 464 pages, 02 Oct 2012

Fans of Joanne Harris’ Chocolat series will be pleased to find that chocolatier Vianne Rocher returns to the village of Lansquenet in Peaches for Father Francis, after receiving a letter from her recently deceased friend Armande. Readers who have already fallen in love with Vianne and the small town of Lansquenet won’t be disappointed with this new book, or with the many flashbacks to the events and situations that took place in earlier books. There’s a satisfying closure in this novel that ties up many loose ends. However, you don’t need to be a existing fan to enjoy the smooth prose, the rich characterisation, or the engaging plotline that reads with the speed and intensity of a mystery. Harris deftly weaves in enough back story to create a standalone novel, which will entice new readers as much as older ones.

Vianne herself is a compelling heroine, using her perception to “read the colours” of those around her and to ‘magic’ her way into their lives through her amazing chocolate. As Father Francis Reynaud puts it: “Her eyes, which are dark as espresso, can sift the shadows of the human heart.” Vianne goes back to Lansquenet to sort out racial tension that has arisen after a large group of Muslim migrants move in, setting up a mosque.

Father Reynaud, Vianne’s nemesis in Chocolat, is a far more sympathetic character in Peaches for Father Francis, and the story is told in alternate points of view, giving the Father equal narrative time with Vianne. This allows the reader to get a strong sense of the insecurity and emotional strain behind Reynaud’s arrogance. Reynaud develops through the story as he struggles against, not only a new culture and strange religion that is entirely foreign to him, but increasing obsolescence when charming young priest, Père Henri, starts using Powerpoint in the church and wooing Reynaud’s parishioners.

Vianne has her own demons to exercise, including her worry that there may be more to her partner Roux’s relationship with her friend Josephine than either of them is letting on. Then there’s the mysterious Inès Bencharki, who never seems to remove her Niqub, and who is openly hostile to Vianne’s advances of friendship, even rejecting Vianne’s special spicy chocolates flavoured with cardamom, vanilla, green tea, rose and tamarind (who could resist those flavours?). As is always the case with Harris’ writing, the food descriptions are particularly wonderful, drawing the reader in and enticing us with the most vivid detail:

The fumes from the mixture are pungent and rich; scented with citrus and cimmamon. For a moment it makes my head spin; carnival colours turn in the smoke.(263)

It isn’t only chocolate that flavours the novel, but also peaches, peach jam, buckwheat pancakes, and the rich aromas of middle eastern cookery:

A door led into the kitchen, from which I caught the mingled scents of anise and almond and rosewater and chickpeas cooked in turmeric, and chopped mint, and toasted cardamom, and those wonderful halwa chebakia, sweet little pastries deep-fried in oil, just small enough to pop into the mouth, flower shaped and brittle and perfect with a glass of mint tea…(89)

The scents, smells and flavours are all part of Vianne’s magic—a shared pleasure for the characters, especially the females, but when Father Francis goes missing, Vianne worries that it will take more than chocolate to solve Lansquenet’s problems There is also Vianne’s own growing sense of displacement, which is exacerbated by the Autan or wind that blows black and white through the novel.

As with Harris’ other books in the series, the love of France and its specific cultures are obvious and wonderfully depicted, not only in the food and quirky customs, but in the rich characterisation of the villagers – some of whom have returned from Chocolat in a revised, developed form as they change roles. Harris has also handled the modern Muslim twist with sensitivity, drawing out the very topical cultural issues of this book without underplaying the complexity of prejudice, fear, and intolerance.

Though the theme of “tolerance” is strong throughout the book, the novel never strays into didacticism. Instead, Peaches for Father Frances is a delicately written, and absolutely engaging story that centres around Vianne’s return to Lansquenet, and her special ability to transcend people’s appearances and cultural trappings, and see into the heart of who they are. This is a beautifully written novel, full of mystery, character growth and excitement with a broad range of appeal.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks, and Joanne Harris is our next guest. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.

Article first published as Book Review: Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris on Blogcritics.