Coastliners (by Joanne Harris)

I've read Joanne Harris's three food-related books (of which Chocolat was the first and best-known) so was interested to try 'Coastliners', a novel about people living on a small island off the coast of France, which was a slightly different venture.

The opening is a bit dull - I skimmed the prologue, which described the island of Le Devin, featured in the book, and the two main parts of it - Les Salants and La Houssinière. There was a sketch-map at the beginning, which I did refer to more than once while reading the book, but I found the prologue was just ' factual' information that didn't add to the story at all.

The main part of the book features Mado, a young woman who lived on the island until her mother left her father some years previously. Her mother has recently died, so Mado returns to see her father, unsure what reception she will get. He's an austere kind of person who barely says a word, and she's not even sure if he loves her.

But although Mado doesn't expect to stay for long, she finds herself quickly caught up in island life, and particularly the general despondency she finds amongst 'her' people, the ones in Les Salants. They see the Houssinières as enemies, always getting the tourists, trying to take over the entire island. Mado tries to push her friends into fighting back, but they don't want to... until an apparent miracle happens, and things start to change rapidly.

Joanne Harris's writing is fluid and evocative, and her people seem real - despite there being such a large number that I frequently lost track of who was who. She portrays clearly the struggle between island customs and traditions, and the pull of modern life. People on Le Devin don't seem to be living in the 21st century - they're barely in the 20th, with few cars, no computers, few modern conveniences. They don't even keep up-to-date with world news. But some things never change in human nature, and the idea of attracting lots of tourists brings out greed in even the nicest of people.

There are broken and healed relationships, uncovered mysteries from the past, a strange but helpful young man whose background is a puzzle to everyone, and some drama towards the end that leads to twists and turns in the plot that left me turning the pages compulsively, wondering how it would all end. I was afraid the ending had been left completely open when I got there - until I discovered a short epilogue, which cleared up my questions.


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