Book review: French kisses from Provence's poor sister

Signs of the Heart by Christopher Hope Macmillan, pounds 16.99, 309pp
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The Independent Culture
THERE IS nothing at all original about Christopher Hope's new book. One of many despatches from the Home Front by people who live South of Calais, it is a postcard from the edge of a swimming pool which will provoke envy in those of us still struggling with the Northern Line. One crucial distinction, however, sets it in a class of its own. Hope is a genuine writer, whose every paragraph is a joy to read.

France as an idea - a spiritual heartland rather than just a place on the map - has fascinated Hope ever since his South African boyhood, when he was scolded by his girlfriend's mother for "French kissing" her daughter. It later became a source of other sensual pleasures, notably food, and a symbol of liberty, which stood in stark contrast to the autocratic Pretoria government. In 1991, he moved to the Midi. Now he pays tribute to his adopted country by recreating it in all its savagery and charm.

The framework of the story is familiar: the diffident foreigner arrives in a close-knit community which he gradually wins over. The surprise is that Hope's pseudonymous village, Kissac (a tribute to that first French impulse?), belongs not to Provence but Languedoc, Provence's plainer, poorer sister. The region has had a chequered history ever since the annihilation of the medieval Cathars but, as Hope writes in one of many memorable passages, "what began, long ago, in heresy, ended in tourism... It's tough being a heretic. First, the authorities burn you alive, then they name the menu gastronomique after you."

"There was nothing of central casting in Kissac" but, while the setting might not appeal to location scouts planning the next Manon des Sources, the villagers provide rich material for anyone considering a remake of Clochemerle. Eccentrics abound, mostly foreign, and Hope brings them vividly to life: Siggie, the German junk-collector extraordinaire; Thor, the Gilbert-and- Sullivan-loving Dane; Liza, the English artist, whose sideline in personal services to homesick compatriots is threatened by the strong pound.

Signs of the Heart is perfect summer reading. It will appeal to everyone except Languedoc estate agents; for, given the mixed fortunes of all Hope's expats, it is unlikely to provoke a massive influx. In that, as in so much else, it offers a welcome antidote to Peter Mayle.