Tuesday Books: Tales of wine and chocolate

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The Independent Culture
IN HENRY James's last completed novel, there is a scene in which a Continental aristocrat remarks that tea, for the English, has a very particular relationship with morality, "so that the more one drank it the more moral one became". In Chocolat, the third novel by Joanne Harris, chocolate occupies a comparable position. Throughout the moody and atmospheric narrative, chocolate is directly or indirectly responsible for the healing of family rifts and for bringing the idea of hope to the community's more desperate inhabitants; it serves as a spur to change for the oppressed characters; it even acts as a sort of solid, malleable foil to hypocrisy.

Chocolat tells the story of Vianne Rocher, a mysterious and exotic woman who arrives in the French village of Lansquennet with her daughter Anouk, and almost immediately opens a little chocolate shop and cafe. The villagers soon flock to La Celeste Praline, eager to sample its dazzling selection of confectionery: the three-nut cluster, the Eastern Journey, the peche au miel millefleurs soaked in eau de vie, and the Nipples of Venus.

But La Celeste Praline is not without its detractors. The more religious villagers are angered by its opening on the first day of Lent and soon Vianne has a fevered adversary in Father Reynaud, who resembles a petty, vindictive priest from a Balzac story, although he lacks the intellectual powers of such a character. A portion of the novel is told from Reynaud's point of view and, as his fury with Vianne as temptress and champion of the dispossessed mounts, we are party to his psychotic fantasies of revenge.

As the story unfolds, more instances of the discord at the heart of this apparently serene village come to light. La Celeste Praline soon becomes a sort of sanctuary, where Vianne feeds chocolate to the villagers and listens to their fears and hopes and dreams.

Harris writes confident and stylish prose. The technical descriptions of chocolate-making, which are my favourite parts, are written as though the process itself were a sort of magic. If the book is slightly lacking in the emotional intensity it seeks, Chocolat is still a richly textured tale, evoking the claustrophobia of village life, and its amusements, with an impressively light touch.

In The Vintner's Luck by the New Zealand writer Elizabeth Knox, wine takes almost as important a role in the lives of the characters as chocolate does in Harris's book. Set in 19th-century Burgundy, the novel opens one midsummer evening when Sobran Jodeau, a young wine grower, is visited by an angel in his vineyard. The angel is a physically beautiful creature with huge wings and a smell of snow. The confused adolescent Sobran appeals to it for guidance in matters of the heart.

The Vintner's Luck chronicles the angel's visits to Sobran, every year on the anniversary of that first night. Sobran and the angel drink wine from his vineyard, and soon their relationship seems to Sobran the most valuable and important in his life. Through marriage and fatherhood, improvements in the vineyards, the ups and downs of Sobran's military career and family disputes, the angel acts as a spiritual guide, almost a branch of his conscience, as well as Sobran's closest friend. When one of his daughters dies, the angel even agrees to check that she is all right in heaven. After a while, their partnership falters when it becomes clear that angels can have uncomfortable secrets and lapses of spirit, too.

The Vintner's Luck is a strange book, both whimsical and deeply ambitious. Although rich with twists of fate and feeling, it does not wholly convince in its evocation of 19th-century France, nor in its darting between real and imaginary worlds. At times the narrative aims for a sort of fluid, worldly ease, like that of, say, Andre Gide's novel The Immoralist. At other moments, it seems to strive for quite a fanciful, almost fairy-tale tone, and then suddenly seems to see itself as a historical epic, novel of ideas, or even a poem. Although I did not find it wholly successful, some of its incidents are sharply drawn and memorable - such as when the hero, travelling as a soldier, has sex with a pregnant Russian prostitute whose waters suddenly break around them.