Jay Mackintosh is a writer whose first hit novel “Jackapple Joe” was based on a man he met as a boy in the late 70s in an ex-mining town in England called Pog Hill. It’s now 1999, however, and he hasn’t written anything serious since – only junk novels under an assumed name. Suddenly, inspiration catches him and he impulsively buys a house in some no-where town in France, determined to get back his muse.
My first impressions of this book were immediately mixed. The first chapter is actually told from the point of view of a bottle of wine – a Fleurie, 1962 to be precise, and one might assume that the book was supposed to be totally from this viewpoint. The main reason for this is in order for the author to write in omnipresent. Clever, perhaps, but the problem is, we are not bottles of wine. Therefore, it struck me as being a mechanic that was trying too hard to be clever. However, luckily for us all, Ms Harris must have realized this as well and while she continues to write in the omnipresent, she only seldom comes back to the bottles speaking for themselves. You will also notice that the wines are unable to get into the minds and/or bodies of anyone besides the protagonist (Jay), except after someone had consumed some of the bottle’s contents.
This is not a sequel to Chocolat, however it is part of her trilogy of novels set in the French town of Lansquenet, and therefore has peppered it with many – if not all – of the minor characters from her previous novel. She even makes a passing reference to the story behind Chocolat, but neither Vianne Rocher nor her daughter Anouk actually appear in this story. The reader may feel cheated by this, since Harris has such a wonderful knack of developing characters – even the minor ones. And yet, since these characters are already known from Chocolat, one feels that they have been trivialized here, and she doesn’t do much to make them as well rounded as she could. Therefore, if you have not read Chocolat then you may find the characters here to be flat and one-dimensional.
Those who do know the story of Chocolat will recall the grandmother who was forced to be estranged from her grandson because of the boy’s mother. In Blackberry Wine we find another case of this estrangement. Here, the grandmother is estranged from her granddaughter because the daughter-in-law is afraid that her mother-in-law might try to take the child from her. While in Chocolat this conflict comes to a satisfactory solution, here it is left as a loose end which I found to be dissatisfying.
However, despite these drawbacks, this book did have some redeeming factors. For instance, Harris likes to use flashbacks extensively in her novels. While some authors like to do this within a chapter, Harris likes her flashbacks to be in different chapters. These flashbacks give us valuable insights into the characters as they are in the present day of the story. In this way, we are relieved of tedious narration that talks about a character’s past, and instead we are shown that past – which is classic “show, don’t tell”. Unfortunately, in this book all of the flashbacks have to do with only Jay Mackintosh’s past, and so we find ourselves with one character in this book that is fully rounded where most of the rest are left as two-dimensional at best. However, since a good character driven story is better than a plot driven one, we can disregard this discrepancy, to some extent.
Still, we seem to get enough of the minor characters’ flavor to not feel totally deprived of their import in this story. For instance, rumors and conversations around Jay’s neighbor, Marise d’Api (the woman who is keeping her daughter from her mother-in-law), give us enough background about her to set us up with our own prejudices about her, and then recant (at least some of) them as we get to know her first hand. Harris is a master at this push-and-pull with the reader – leading you in one direction about a character through conjecture, and then allowing you to completely change your mind about that person when you get to know the truth. This is one of the Harris’ greatest abilities.
This doesn’t mean that the plot doesn’t intrigue as well. To the contrary, Harris seems to know how to get one wrapped up in the story as well as with the characters. In Blackberry Wine, we become involved in Jay’s life on several different levels. On one level, we have his motivation to return to being a “real writer” and regain his muse. On another level, we have his attachment to the man who inspired his first novel – Jackapple Joe – and how Joe continues to be part of his life despite Jay’s move across the channel. Yet another level is his relationship with the town and its inhabitants versus his cutting himself off from his previous girlfriend in London and his sham of a life there. There are even more levels than this, but it is Harris’ simplicity of language mixed with a good deal of charm and wit that keeps all of these different levels in play without ever losing the reader’s interest or complicating things beyond understanding. This is a rare gift indeed, and another reason why I’ll continue to read Harris’ books.
Finally, Harris imbues her stories with a sense of magic and the supernatural. This isn’t to say that these are Harry Potter stories for adults – not at all. No, Harris seems to believe that there are many unexplained things that happen to people which – if we examine them too closely – will lose their feeling of the extraordinary. Instead, she works these things into her character’s lives and lets them help move her story along. In this book, it is the spirit of Jackapple Joe that embodies the exceptional things that happen to Jay – both in his real-life actions and in his “haunting” (if you will) of Jay in France. It really is hard to say how she succeeds with this without the readers saying “oh, give it up, I just don’t buy it” but somehow she does.
All in all, while there are some problems with this book, I would still recommend it, but give it only three out of five stars. There are compelling characters and an interesting story line mixed with a touch of the famous Harris fairy dust. This is a good easy read, which has short enough chapters to allow one to pick it up and put down at will, without feeling like you’re missing something or will lose something in the interim. This is a book that would be perfect for summer holiday reading.
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