Book Review: The Strawberry Thief

'The Strawberry Thief' is a magical mystery that definitely needs to be unravelled

The Strawberry Thief

For those who are familiar with the author, Joanne Harris, the characters in this novel may fall into place, this being the fourth of her series of interconnected tales involving the village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. The most well-known of the series, of course, is Chocolat, as much for the tale that she weaves around that fascinating title, as for the famous film that evolved from it.

Though this story may have a very different title, all fans of Joanne Harris may rest assured that this tale also brings in tantalising versions of chocolate, in equal parts, with the magic and mystery that is so characteristic of this author’s style.

Vianne Rocher, as the chief protagonist, is very much a part of Lansquenet, a town that had once rejected her. But there are other protagonists too, as the author allots different chapters to each of them, as they reveal their stories and their confessions. This, perhaps, could be termed the one weak point in the novel, as the names are not mentioned in the beginning and it is left to the reader to figure out the narrator of a particular chapter.

But this apart, Harris weaves a fine tale bringing in all the intricate threads together, to make for a fine study of human nature with all its foibles and failings. Almost all the characters seem in quest of absolution, for sins imagined and otherwise, and this word figures now and then in the book. Whilst some are fortunate enough to be absolved, others must look beyond their lifetimes to hope for atonement. But a strong sense of karma does prevail across the novel and no one is able to escape, one way or the other.

The buzz in the village starts when Narcisse, the non-Church going florist, dies in old age and leaves a portion of his land, involving strawberry plants, to Rossette, the special child of Vianne Rocher and a written confession for the priest of the town, Francis Reynaud, whom he ironically makes the executor of his will. The author cleverly manages to pull off the reading of the main denouement in the confession to the end, by having the file appearing and disappearing from several hands through a good part of the story, in the most believable way.

But what makes the story so special is Joanne’s observations on human nature and her many philosophical outpourings. Through the voice of Vianne, she speaks of small cherished dreams and “the thought of being rooted in one place, never to be blown away... a place in which the seeds I sow will grow into something I recognise”. There is also a plea for treating “different” people with sympathy, as when Narcisse objects to comments on Rossette by saying, “Don’t label the child. She is not a parcel.”

An attempt is also made at political correctness, with a focus on shunning prejudice against the “river folks” or gypsies and learning to trust and treat them with respect. Coincidentally or otherwise, many of them bear Muslim names and run eateries, which offer food like samosas.

At the heart of the novel, and a theme which keeps recurring, is the parental anxiety over children and a dread of the empty nest. Vianne Rocher’s use of her magical powers also comes into question here until she becomes aware of her possessiveness and repents. In keeping with the theme of the novel, there is an interesting parallel drawn about “the strawberry runners growing away from the parent plant, hungry for new soil, hungry for change”. Whilst Rossette muses, “You can’t keep a child like a duck on a lake, wings clipped to fool the wind,” her mother realises almost in Kahlil Gibran style, “Children are not ours to keep, but ours to give to the future.”

While there is melancholia in the realisation “that everything in life is on loan, and must be given back in the end,” there is also a positive acceptance of change: “Marks from the sun on my arms and face; still pale, but growing darker. Wrinkles in my forehead; laughter lines around my eyes. Like the table in the chocolaterie, I bear the blemishes of time. I do not begrudge this. It means I have lived. It means that I have lived well.”

And, of course, the linking up with the mystery of chocolate confections, which keep making appearances throughout the story, as Vianne dishes out one delectable preparation after another, with complete awareness of their magical effects on people. In a similar fashion, Joanne Harris’s novel is guaranteed to weave a magical spell on readers and have them eagerly turning the pages to find out what is to follow.

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