Book review: Peaches for Monsieur le Curé by Joanne Harris

Take Joanne Harris’s delicious book Chocolat, throw in some exotic spices, a dash of peppermint tea and what do you have – Peaches for Monsieur le Curé.

Wednesday, 6th June 2012, 7:00 am

In the third instalment of her French flavoured series, Harris takes us back to the conservatively Gallic village where Vianne Rocher, the magical mistress of love, laughter and luscious sweets, stole millions of hearts.

Eight years have passed since Vianne opened her chocolate shop in Lansquenet (who can forget the film version starring Juliette Binoche and Jonny Depp?), and four years since the events of The Lollipop Shoes.

The fasting season of Lent which first blew Vianne into south-west France has turned to the fasting festival of Ramadan because there have been big cultural changes in Lansquenet... and not everyone is happy.

Only the gregarious Vianne, wrapped up in her usual miasma of mysticism, mayhem and dreams, can bring colour where there is darkness, hope where there is despair and friendship where there is enmity...

Now living on a houseboat in Paris with her lover Roux and two daughters Anouk and Rosette, Vianne receives a letter from beyond the grave. It was written by her friend Armande Voizin from Lansquenet not long before the old lady died.

Armande summons Vianne back to her old home and although she promised herself never to return to the place she had loved best of all, she finds herself compelled to go.

With her children by her side, Vianne makes the nostalgic journey but is completely unprepared for what she finds there.

Women veiled in black, the scent of spices and there, on the bank of the river Tannes, facing the square little tower of the church of Saint-Jerôme and looking like a piece on a chessboard – slender, bone-white and crowned with a silver crescent moon – is a minaret.

Les Marauds, which once housed the tanneries that brought money to Lansquenet, have become home to the Maghrébins, immigrant families originally from Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, who have fled the crime-ridden suburbs of cities like Marseille and Toulouse.

Most villagers were initially happy to see Les Marauds gain a new lease of life but plans to convert an old building into a mosque and the arrival of a young Muslim girl and her mysterious mother, veiled, aggressive and aloof, has brought discord to the traditional village.

Meanwhile, Father Reynaud, Vianne’s former adversary, is now disgraced and under threat. Facing a serious charge, he has been usurped by new priest, Père Henri Lemaître, ‘an upstart with too many teeth and a passion for PowerPoint.’

Is Vianne the only one who can save him, and is the woman hidden under a veil also in need of her special brand of magic?

For an author whose hobbies apparently include ‘mooching, lounging, strutting and strumming,’ Harris’s books are like busy bees, buzzing with action, powerful ideas and emotional turmoil.

In Peaches for Monsieur le Curé, she tackles heavyweight issues like religion, prejudice, race and gender with the lightest of touches and without losing that sense of ethereal ‘other worldliness’ that has been the hallmark of the Chocolat novels.

As always, food glorious food provides the scents, tastes and textures that make reading Peaches for Monsieur le Curé such a sensuous, enchanting and atmospheric experience.

Another delicious course in an extraordinary feast of fun!

(Doubleday, hardback, £18.99)