The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris: a visual, verbal and sensual delight - book review

There’s an ill wind blowing through the picturesque French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes… and it means someone will be dead by dawn.

Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 11:52 am
Updated Tuesday, 30th March 2021, 11:56 am
The Strawberry Thiefby Joanne Harris

If your sweet tooth is crying out for more Chocolat, then indulge yourself in a truly tasty return to the enchanting world created by Joanne Harris in her multi-million-copy series which won hearts and minds, and was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.

Lyrical writing, a unique brand of magical realism, stunning atmospherics, and a cast of sparkling characters who could charm the birds out of the trees are the hallmarks of these enthralling novels, and The Strawberry Thief – the fourth in the series and a tale in which the wind shapes destinies – delivers that same heady mix.

At the heart of these captivating stories is Vianne Rocher, the chocolatier who we first met in 1999 when she arrived as a single mother in Lansquenet at the beginning of Lent with her six-year-old daughter, Anouk, and after initially being rejected, cast a spell over the village with her instinctive gift for matching sweets to her customers.

Five years later, it’s Lent again and Vianne is happily settled in Lansquenet where she runs her chocolate shop and is part of the community. The quiet village that once rejected her has finally become her home and she likes the thought of being ‘rooted’ in one place, ‘never to be blown away.’

But one person who has gone with the wind is her eldest daughter, Anouk, now aged 21 and the ‘summer child’ who she always knew was ‘on loan’ and, much to Vianne’s sadness, is now living with her boyfriend in Paris, ‘returned to the world, to grow and to learn to fall in love.’

Still with Vianne is 15-year-old Rosette, her youngest child, who doesn’t like to talk, much preferring to sit quietly with her button box or draw animals. While her mother ‘sees’ her customers’ favourite kind of chocolate, Rosette ‘sees’ people as different kinds of animals.

On a day of rare snowfall, Rosette hears the song of the wind which she knows is a portent of death and sure enough, Narcisse, the florist, is found dead in his chair the following day. Old and gruff, Narcisse was fiercely fond of Rosette, the wild girl he once found gorging on strawberries in the woodland he owned next to his farm.

And, to the amazement of Narcisse’s own angry daughter and the residents of Lansquenet, the old florist has left that same parcel of valuable land to Rosette, and a written confession to local priest Francis Reynaud, throwing the life of the sleepy village into total disarray.

But there is more unsettling news for Vianne when the enigmatic Morgane Dubois opens her mysterious new shop at the former florist’s… one that mirrors the ethos of the chocolaterie, and has a strange appeal of its own.

Morgane arrived on the ‘changing wind’ and turbulence – a confrontation or perhaps even a murder – might just lie ahead.

Harris’s beautiful prose and extraordinary gift for storytelling are the sparks that ignite this return trip to Lansquenet-sous-Tannes where life, death and magic are a constant, and universal themes of immigration, rejection, racism and fear of outsiders are explored with a light touch but a deep humanity.

Playing a principal role in this new chapter is the enigmatic, mute Rosette, Vianne’s ‘winter child’ who hears and is guided by the voice of the wind… a girl who listens rather than speaks, a ‘force of nature… wild as an armful of birds’ whose instincts and ‘difference’ are a cause for celebration rather than concern.

In fact, Rosette lives in a village where all fates are wind-blown, where truth, love, family, religious conflict, friendship and redemption can comfortably co-exist with mysticism and those things that cannot be rationally explained.

Written with Harris’s special sensory awareness – rooted in a form of synaesthesia which enables her to smell colours – The Strawberry Thief is a visual, verbal and sensual delight full of mystery, magic and the mastery we have come to expect from such a remarkable author.

(Orion, paperback, £8.99)