Just as the title indicates, this is an appetising novel – one which is not only about chocolate but, at heart, about the appetite for life. Its opening sentence ‘We came on the wind of the carnival, a warm wind for February, laden with the hot greasy scents of frying pancakes and sausages and powdery-sweet waffles cooked on the hotplate right there by the roadside with the confetti sleeting down collars and cuffs and rolling in the gutters like an idiot antidote to winter’ conjures up scents and textures and hints at the sensual read to come.
The ‘we’ of the opening are Vianne Rocher and Anouk her beloved young daughter. They have arrived in the small French village of Lansquenet where Vianne decides to stay and set up a chocolate boutique in the empty bakery opposite the church, selling her own-made chocolates and cups of hot chocolate. Slowly, through her shop, she gets to know and befriend her customers: Guillaume, a shy man whose only companion is his pet dog, Charly, a charismatic old woman, Armande Voizin, estranged from her young grandson and Josephone Muscat, a kleptomaniac trapped in an abusive marriage.
The arrival of this mysterious, bohemian stranger causes ripples in the narrow conservative world of a small French village. Father Reynaud, the austere, local priest who controls the town, soon makes his opposition to Vianne and her chocolate shop apparent. This opposition within the book is reinforced by the structure of the book which offers two alternating, deeply contrasting first person narratives: those of Vianne and of Father Reynaud. Vianne’s memories of her rootless childhood, the lessons she learnt while on the road with her mother, give depth to her character. Father Reynaud’s monologues reveal the depths of his obsession with Vianne and her chocolate shop.
While the book is very much a fairy-tale, Harris, who is herself half-French, is very good on the social tensions and cruelties that a small rural community contains within it: the telling snubs, the social hierarchy and the hypocrisy. Under the day-to-day surface of life in the community, with its calendar marked by church festivals, it turns out that he villagers are hiding a deeper, darker and disturbing secret.
The arrival of a group of river gypsies who moor in the river and stop to repair their boats heightens the tensions and divisions within the community. Armande Voizin, welcomes them and their leader Roux and invites them to stay in front of her house. For Father Reynaud, however, they are ‘spreaders of disease, thieves, liars, murderers when they can get away of it’ and he preaches against them. An ugly, all too recognisable xenophobia is unleashed within the town and the opposition between Vianne and Father Reynaud reaches a crisis point.
Within the book, chocolate is much more than simply a piece of confectionery; it is a source of pleasure, empathy and human connection. There is something mysterious and magical about Vianne and the way in which she makes her chocolate creations. ‘There is a kind of sorcery in all cooking’ she observes. Chocolate’s rich and fascinating history - its role in the ‘sacred rituals’ of the Aztecs, as a ‘food of the gods’ underlines this story of the battle for a village’s soul. With its beguiling heroine and rich, lushly descriptive writing, Chocolat offers a read as appealing as one of Vianne’s elegant cups of hot chocolate.