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Chocolat    by Joanne Harris order for
by Joanne Harris
Order:  USA  Can
Doubleday, 2000 (1999)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is a luscious tale of Church versus Chocolat. Vianne Rocher and her 6 year old daughter Anouk wander into Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, a French village of two hundred souls, on the wind of the carnival on a Shrove Tuesday. Tired of wandering, Anouk and her imaginary rabbit friend Pantoufle beg to stay. Mother and daughter settle into a shop across from the church and open La Celeste Praline, a Chocolaterie.

The centerpiece in Vanne's first window display says it all ... a dark chocolate witch and iced gingerbread house surrounded by chocolate animals and marzipan birds. Is Vianne a witch? Curé Francis Reynaud certainly thinks so. He plots her downfall as he mumbles hypocrisies on regular visits to his predecessor - the old père is comatose in a nursing home. In Reynaud, Harris shows us the worst of his Church; a mean-spirited, closed-minded priest who condones evil actions in those of his parishioners who pay lip service to his faith. He has his own dark history, which links back to the worst crimes committed in the name of his religion, in times of the Inquisition and auto-da-fé.

Vianne Rocher is an unrepentant pagan who places rock salt and bread by her doorstep to placate the gods and feels that 'everyone needs ... a little self-indulgence from time to time.' She tries to help the needy villagers: Guillaume who loves his sick old dog and doesn't know how to let go; the abused Joséphine who can't escape her violent husband; the river gypsies, despised and shunned; and the wonderful old witch Armande who longs for her grandson, kept from her by her petty, conventional daughter. Of all of them, Armande best understands how to live and does so with passion and red silk petticoats.

Reynaud, the Black Man, is threatened by everything that Vianne represents and fights back through manipulation of his parishioners - his flock whom he nevertheless despises. It all comes to a head with the children's plea for a Grand Festival du Chocolat for Easter, when Vianne will make 'a thousand and one epiphanies of spun-sugar magic-carpet rides more suited to an Arabian harem then the solemnities of the Passion.'

There is a great deal of serious matter in this story, from violence against women to racism, bigotry, rights of the elderly and euthenasia. But underlying all is the witchery and 'sensual magic' of chocolate. And it's this that finally causes the downfall and exposure of the Black Man, who is obsessed by the urge to destroy it, but finally succumbs to the temptation of a truffle and 'a taste succubus that has me moaning' in an ending that will not come as a surprise to chocaholic readers.

Chocolat is a rich and layered tale to be slowly savored just like the subtle confections displayed in Vianne's shop window. It's tells of life and death, intolerance and affection, austerity and enjoyment; and the ability of an individual to make magic and change people's lives.

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