Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Wine Tells All

Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris


Jay Mackintosh is a writer whose first hit novel "Jackapple Joe" revolved around a man he met as a boy in the late 70s in Pog Hill an ex-mining town in England. It's now 1999, however, and he hasn't written anything serious since - only junk novels under an assumed name. Suddenly, inspiration catches him and he impulsively buys a house in some no-where town in France, determined to get back his muse.

To be honest, I must confess my mixed first impressions of this book. It begins with the first chapter told from the point of view of a bottle of wine - a Fleurie, 1962 to be precise. This made me assume this book was supposed to be totally from this viewpoint, but actually, this was just a ruse for the author to write in a third person omnipresent voice. As clever as this may seem, we should remember we are not bottles of wine. You will also notice that the wines are unable to get into the minds and/or bodies of anyone besides the protagonist (Jay), except after someone had consumed some of the bottle's contents. Therefore, it struck me as being a mechanic that was trying too hard to be clever. Luckily, Ms Harris must have realized this and only seldom came back to the bottles speaking for themselves.

This is not a sequel to Chocolat, however it is part of her trilogy of novels set in the French town of Lansquenet, and therefore has peppered it with many - if not all - of the minor characters from her previous novel. She even makes a passing reference to the story behind Chocolat, but neither Vianne Rocher nor her daughter Anouk actually appear in this story. The reader may feel cheated by this, since Harris has such a wonderful knack of developing characters - even the minor ones. Yet, since we already know these characters from Chocolat, they feel almost trivialized here, and Harris doesn't do much to make them as well rounded as she could. Therefore, if you have not read Chocolat, you may find the characters here to be flat and one-dimensional.

Those who do know the story of Chocolat will recall the estranged grandmother. In this story, we find another case of this estrangement. Here, a granddaughter doesn't meet her grandmother the woman's daughter-in-law is afraid that her mother-in-law might try to take the child from her. While in Chocolat this conflict comes to a satisfactory solution, here this remains a loose end, which I found to be dissatisfying.

For instance, Harris likes to use flashbacks extensively in her novels, while confining them to their own chapters. These flashbacks give us valuable insights into the characters as they are in the present day of the story, thereby eliminating tedious narration. Unfortunately, all of the flashbacks in this book have to do with only Jay Mackintosh's past, and so we find ourselves with only one fully rounded character where most of the rest are two-dimensional at best.

Still, we seem to get enough of the minor characters' flavor so as not to deprive us totally of their import in this story. For instance, rumors and conversations around Jay's neighbor, Marise d'Api (the woman who is keeping her daughter from her mother-in-law), give us enough background to allow us to come to our own prejudices about her, and then recant (at least some of) them as we get to know her. Harris is a master of this push-and-pull with the reader - leading you in one direction through conjecture, and then letting you completely change your mind once you know the truth.

Regarding the plot, Harris seems to know how to get one wrapped up in the story as well as with the characters, as we become involved in Jay's life on several different levels. On one level, we have his motivation to return to being a "real writer" and regain his muse. On another level, we have his attachment to the man who inspired his first novel - Jackapple Joe - and how Joe continues to be part of his life despite Jay's move across the channel. Yet another level is his relationship with the town and its inhabitants versus his cutting himself off from his previous girlfriend in London and his sham of a life there. There are even more levels than this, but it is Harris' simplicity of language mixed with a good deal of charm and wit that keeps all of these different levels in play without ever losing the reader's interest or complicating things beyond understanding.

Furthermore, Harris imbues her stories with a sense of magical realism, to explain the unexplained things that happen to people. More importantly, if we examine these events too closely, they will lose their feeling of being extraordinary. So she works these into her character's lives and lets them push her story along. In this book, she uses the spirit of Jackapple Joe to embody the exceptional things that happen to Jay - both in his real-life actions and in his "haunting" (if you will) of Jay in France. As strange as that may seem, she always succeeds using these elements without ever allowing her readers to give up and say, "I just don't buy it."

Overall, while there are some problems with this book, I would still recommend it, but give it only three out of five stars. Harris gives us compelling characters and an interesting story line mixed with a touch of her famous "fairy dust." This is a good easy read, which has short enough chapters to allow one to pick up at will, without feeling as if you're missing or will lose something in the interim, making it a perfect book for summer holiday reading. 

"Blackberry Wine" by Joanne Harris is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo (for other eBook reader formats), as an iBook or Audiobook from iTunes, in print from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.