The Strawberry Thief, by Joanne Harris.
I have the feeling that this fourth book in Ms Harris’s series involving Vianne Rocher, fey and eccentric chocolatier-extraordinaire in the Southern French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes will be the last: there is an air of finality to the plot and all the ends are tied up neatly by the last page – not in an unpleasant way; just very conclusively. Which is a shame, for Vianne and her Gypsy lover Roux (played so convincingly in the film version of ‘Chocolat’ by Juliette Binoche and (sigh) Johnny Depp) have become loved, staple figures that every reader of Ms Harris’s fiction associate with her work: to give up stories of them and Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes is akin to having to forsake chocolate!
The village is changing, and people are dying, including Narcisse, the old farmer and owner of the florist shop across the square. No-one is surprised by his demise; he was very old, but the contents of his will shock everyone: his daughter (whom no-one likes) inherits the farm and shop, but a little wood adjacent to the farm is left to Vianne’s daughter Rosette, considered by everyone to be retarded because she doesn’t speak and was unable to attend school because she had ‘accidents’. When children bullied her (well, could you blame them? She’s VERY odd!), stormy weather could appear in a cloudless sky, for Rosette has the power to put the wind up anyone who upsets her. Better she stays at home with Vianne – who feels the change in the wind too, especially when a stranger, a mysterious woman rents Narcisse’s shop and starts business as (of all things) a tattooist!
And people start flocking to her – almost like the Pied Piper, Vianne thinks – which fills her with dread, for the Pied Piper always demands to be paid. And the tattooist has the seeming ability to read peoples’ minds, to glean all their secrets; even Vianne’s old adversary Father Reynaud, bearing a terrible secret of his own as well as having to read Narcisse’s last written Confession, is helpless before her power.
When Roux visits the tattooist, then announces he is moving on, Vianne is bereft, but the unthinkable occurs when Rosette, against her special orders, visits the tattooist: this woman is intent on taking away all whom Vianne loves. It’s time to call up the wind. It’s time for the tattooist to go.
Ms Harris beguiles the reader as always with her wonderful imagery – especially her descriptions of strawberries, and who could ever be impervious to her thoughts on chocolat, sweet balm for us all. She has seduced us yet again with her lovely characters –magical realism was never better served. Vive Lansquenet-Sous-Tannes! FIVE STARS