29/12/2005

Blackberry Wine

This is the second novel I've read by Joanne Harris in recent months. The plot revolves around Jay, a rather disillusioned writer who completed one brilliant book, years previously, and a great deal of junk fiction. He's married to the ultra-smart and supercilious Kerry, but one day on impulse decides to buy an old farm in France - and then moves there, out of the blue. Most of the novel revolves around his re-finding his writing muse, getting the farm into some kind of shape, and getting to know the neighbours.

But that's only the current (1999) side of the book. Interwoven between the modern plot are Jay's memories of 1975, when he was a rather fed-up teenager who befriended an elderly eccentric called Joe. Joe taught Jay all he knows about plants and herbs, and also preserving and wine-making. Wine is an important motif in the book - so much so that its narrator (in places) is a bottle of wine. Surprisingly this works well; the narrator is not intrusive, and most of the book is told from the third-person viewpoint of Jay.

There's magic too, in a low-key earthy sort of way. Talismans against bullies, incantations against attack, even some sequences (perhaps) of astral travel. But they all happen in such matter-of-fact surroundings that they don't jar with the rest of the plot at all. Jay begins to come to terms with his past as he relaxes in his new surroundings and learns the truth about some of his neighbours.

All in all, a pleasant book, and ideal to read when there's a lot going on, since it was quite possible to read a couple of short chapters at night, and not feel the need to keep going until the early hours. I didn't find myself as engrossed as I was by the same author's 'Chocolat', but that's just as well in a busy time of year. Even so, I was surprised to find that it's taken me three weeks to finish a book of only 330 pages.

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