“someone once told me that, in France alone, a quarter of a million letters are delivered every year to the dead. What she didn’t tell me is that sometimes the dead write back.”
Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé; is the third book in the series which began with the hugely successful Chocolat in 1999 and continued with The Lollipop Shoes in 2007. I have had this book for at least three years – a huge hardback taking up room which my mum had passed on to me. Having now read (and loved) all three I would say that readers could move quite comfortably from Chocolat to Peaches for Monsieur Le Curé without having read The Lollipop shoes, as the setting for this novel is that of Chocolat and we meet again many of those wonderful characters. Modern novels and I don’t always gel as well as I want us to – but this I loved.(I do recommend reading all three though – they are fabulous).
It is eight years since the events of Chocolat – which saw Vianne Rocher and her eldest daughter Anouk, leave Lansquenet, four years since the events in The Lollipop Shoes. Vianne and her two daughters live on a houseboat on the Seine with Roux – the man she met in Lansquenet eight years earlier and who is the father of her second daughter Rosette.
One day Vianne receives a letter from beyond the grave – a letter from her old friend Armande in Lansquenet, who has been dead for eight years. It is a letter written before, saved for a time when Armande knew Vianne would be needed again.
Change has come to Lansquenet and that small southern town that Vianne left I not the same place she now returns to with her two girls, leaving Roux in Paris.
Les Marauds, the former slum area of Lansquenet the site near the river of the old tanneries, is now home to new families. People from Tunsia, Morocco, and Algeria, people with their own culture, religion, the scent of their food filling the air, have reinvigorated the area. Yet with this new community comes conflict, misunderstanding and dark secrets. Mohammed Mahjoubi a simple elderly man, a moderate and kindly imam – has led his community for some years, but he is being gradually squeezed out by younger men with less moderate views. Mahjoubi’s son Said runs a gym, which has become a gathering place for his friends. Veiled women now walk the streets of this district, and a minaret has appeared above the house used as a mosque. Once, the younger generation easily managed to exist within two communities – now there is discord and fear.
“There are so many tribes, after all; chosen tribes, lost tribes, warring tribes, converted tribes. Also, of course, football supporters; rock fans; political parties; believers in extraterrestrials; extremists; moderates; conspiracy theorists; Boy Scouts; the unemployed; river-gypsies; vegetarians; cancer survivors; poets and punks; each tribe with its multitude of smaller and smaller sub-categories, because, in the end, doesn’t everyone really want to belong somewhere, to find their perfect space in the world?”
As Vianne arrives in Lansquenet it is the beginning of Ramadan in Les Marauds – while the rest of Lansquenet celebrate Sainte- Marie with a carnival. Vianne’s old nemesis Francis Reynard watches from the side lines. Time has changed Monsieur le Curé a little – he is older, a little mellower – once revered and respected he is now in disgrace – a new priest is taking his place – a priest who favours the use of PowerPoint – and Reynard is in danger of losing his position completely.
“And then, with a jolt, I saw her: Inès Bencharki, the Woman in Black, walking along the boulevard with the measured grace of a dancer. Other women walk together, talking and laughing among themselves. Inès Bencharki walks apart, bracketed in silence; shoulders straight; head held high; aloof in a capsule of twilit space.”
Inès Bencharki followed her brother Karim Bencharki to Lansquenet to attend his wedding – and never left. Ines – ‘the woman in black’ allowing only her eyes to show under her niqab has brought with her an atmosphere of change and disquiet. No one it seems in Les Marauds has any time for her she is regarded with hatred and suspicion by the other women – who nevertheless have all taken to wearing headscarves or even the niqab like Inès. Inès Bencharki made her home with her daughter in Vianne’s former chocolatarie – setting up a girls’ school, a school Curé Reynard did not believe was necessary. When fire ripped through the old shop, thankfully allowing Inés and her daughter to escape unharmed, the finger of blame is pointed firmly in the direction of one man.
In the cobbled streets of the old village of Lansquenet that we remember so well from Chocolat – we meet again many of the characters from that earlier novel. Change has come to some of them too. Caro Clairmont has changed her allegiance to the new priest, while her son Luc tries to shake off his mother’s dominance. Joséphine Muscat has changed too – she’s delighted to see Vianne again – and yet she appears to be hiding something – Vianne wonders if it has anything to do with her son, Pilou – who is around the same age as Vianne’s daughter Rosette. Vianne decides to stay a while, staying in the house of her old friend Armande – with its tree laden with peaches.
Vianne is needed again it seems to heal the wounds of a village she came to care so much for. She finds unexpected friendship can now exist between her and Francis Reynard – and discovers more than one person in need of her assistance. These two communities are not so different really – but they have been hurt by the misunderstandings that arise between two different cultures living side by side. Food is a great unifier in this novel – though not just chocolates this time – Vianne does make some chocolates, and the merest mention of her truffles gets my juices flowing.
I do love Joanne Harris’ writing, Peaches for Monsieur le Curé is written with such a wonderful sense of place that I feel I know almost every inch of (the fictional) Lansquenet. Joanne Harris shows real understanding for the complex religious and cultural conflicts that exist in Europe. Wonderful prose and fabulously realistic, fascinating characters, why I left it so long to read this book I have no idea – but it proved rather an unexpected treat.