Monday, November 19, 2012

Can't We All Just Get Along?

Erudite Mondays at Half Soled Boots 
Volume 12 Number 1 

Joanne Harris

I picked this book up, in large part, because of the title. Isn't that weird? It just goes to show you that when you're writing your dissertation, you should consider "Rum and the Crunching of Cannons" rather than "Antisocial Tendencies of Seventeenth-Century Trade Ships".

This book is by the same author as "Chocolat", which all of you no doubt remember because of Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. (Johnny Depp. Sweeeet.) Personally, I love that movie, which is what made me take the book out of the library a few years ago. When I saw that Harris had written another book about the same characters, I jumped at it.

Imagine my surprise when I found that it's the THIRD book, not the second! I somehow missed "The Lollipop Shoes".

At any rate, I liked "Peaches". It had that same spicy luxury of "Chocolat", but with the important addition of a handful of Muslim culture - Lansquenet, that same village where we saw Vianne Rocher open her chocolaterie in the middle of Lent, has seen an influx of North African immigrants, who have "taken over" a neighbourhood on the other side of the river, bringing the niqab, and the muezzin, and a minaret with them.

In this book Lansquenet, the village that hates change, comes face to face with a very visible, very alien culture. The theme, of course, boils down to "we're all the same underneath", and after all the violence and mystery and sudden crises, the author does get there with some compelling arguments.

The weakest parts of the book are the somewhat contrived conflicts and the slightly heavy-handed suspense. "Who is the veiled woman?" is a question that can only interest a reader for so long, and I admit I started to get a little impatient with it. The one other thing that didn't sit terribly well was the implication that the French Catholic residents, who don't like the black veils everywhere and the five-times-daily calls to prayer, are simply lacking in human sympathy - they are unable to understand that "they are just like us". This part of the story felt a little too pat for me. It felt naive, as if any given community should be quite happy to have its cultural traditions overset by newcomers of a diametrically-opposed faith. (I'm envisioning the seismic aftermath of a Catholic church opening in one of Saudi Arabia's villages.)

But then, the whole premise of Vianne Rocher's character is that she barges in, guns blazing, to overset  tradition and free people from the tyranny of the establishment. And the author is not crazy about the Catholic church, either as an institution or as it's represented at the individual level - the flyleaf lists "priest-baiting" as one of Joanne Harris' hobbies. So it really doesn't come as a surprise that the tone of this book is, culturally speaking, fairly pro-Muslim; a sort of disapproving headshake to Western religious and cultural intolerance.

There are a few hard-line Muslims in this book, as well as hard-line Catholics, but once those are tidied out of the way, everybody gets together over a cracking party - the end of Ramadan. Lots of food, party lanterns, and brightly-coloured clothes - always a great idea for promoting interfaith understanding. (Again, having fun picturing those Muslim Saudis, swapping coconut macaroons and Turkish Delight with a bunch of Christians under patio lanterns on the 12th day of Christmas. As if.)

Overall, I liked this book a lot. The central conflict might have been a little predictable, and the Muslim/Christian issues overly ambitious, but that didn't take away from my enjoyment of it. It was a fun read (and short - not even a full weekend) and full of pretty images, smells, and tastes. Give it a try, especially if you liked "Chocolat".

Half Soled Boots Highly-Specialised Book Rating System
Reread? Not impossible, eventually
Given to Others? Maybe, but likely not
Bookplate? No

1/3 - pure entertainment.

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