Books: The priest, the cook and the bucket

Chocolat by Joanne Harris Doubleday pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
This novel is due to be published in 19 countries and set to become a Hollywood film. The advance publicity boldly describes it as "the international literary sensation of 1999", but can it live up to the hype? Set in a neverneverland version of rural France, this modern fairytale for the tastebuds is certainly attractive and well-crafted. But it somehow feels too easily palatable to be truly satisfying.

The plot centres on Vianne Rocher, a mysterious, free- spirited stranger who suddenly appears in the sleepy village of Lansquenet. Together with her bubbly, six-year-old daughter, she moves into an abandoned bakery which she transforms into an Aladdin's cave of a confectioner's- shop-cum-cafe crammed with beguiling sweetmeats - truffles, candied rose petals, hazelnut clusters, Venus's nipples, pains au chocolat, pralines, florentines, gilded gingerbread, chocolate seashells - all to be washed down with cups of the richest, blackest chocolate espresso or the frothiest "chococcino".

The shop is an instant hit with the village children, but for the local priest it is the work of the devil. Vianne has timed her opening to coincide with the beginning of Lent, and Father Reynaud soon accuses her of trying to corrupt his flock by tempting them away from abstinence. He initiates a battle between church and chocolate which comes to a head on Easter Sunday, and becomes, increasingly, an allegorical conflict between darkness and light.

With her flowing hair and brightly coloured clothes, Vianne represents a mystic life force. Her pagan sensuality is contrasted with the dead hand of Catholicism embodied by the sinister cure in his black soutane. She prefers to honour the ancient goddess Eostre than to go to church, and is something of a white witch, capable of working alchemy, not only in the kitchen, where she distils her sugary creations, but among the souls of the dispossessed.

Vianne is always ready to offer a chocolate almond on the house to the underprivileged. She rescues a battered wife; makes friends with the stammering son of an uptight bourgeoise; sides with the gypsy travellers whose houseboat is firebombed by murderous bigots; and (more ambiguously) turns a blind eye to an elderly diabetic's quest for euthanasia, giving a whole new meaning to the pudding known as "death by chocolate". Ultimately, her caring, sharing, New Age values triumph over the repressive priest, who revels in masochistic self-denial while secretly lusting after the delicious Vianne and her wares.

The best of the novel is in the descriptions: incantatory lists of edibles pulsing with the tangy aroma of dark chocolate, surrounded by a glittering paraphernalia of silk flowers, spun sugar and silver paper. But attempts at pathos cloy. The sentimental death of a dog called Charly, and the subsequent appearance of his aged owner with an empty leash trailing from his wrist, had me reaching for the sick-bucket. As symbolism, the Manichean struggle between cure and chocolatier seems banal, despite the esoteric references to Jungian archetypes. Like chocolate, this book should be consumed purely for the fleeting pleasure of it and with no expectation of any more lasting nourishment.