NOT known for literary controversy, best-selling author Joanne Harris has taken the bold step of focusing her latest book on clashing religion and cultures in France.
Peaches For Monsieur Le Cure is the third in Joanne Harris’ series featuring her Chocolat characters, following on from The Lollipop Shoes.
It is set eight years on, during Ramadan, when the chocolate shop in the rural French village of Lansquenet is now a ruined building owned by incomer Ines Bencharki, her face hidden by a niqab (veil).
The village priest, Father Reynaud, has become the outcast amid a community of Moroccans on one side of the river and locals on the other, and finds an unlikely ally in the form of Vianne Rocher, his former enemy who once owned the chocolate shop.
Joanne, 48, says: “I wrote it during the year when a lot of European countries were talking about banning the veil, in that period of political debate and protest and upheaval. About two months after Ramadan they did ban the veil in France, so the story was shaped to some extent by current events.”
She stresses the book is not meant to be political and there are no villains of the piece. But the novel displays how communities can become segregated through their own cultures and prejudices.
Joanne says: “Human nature is such that people tend to justify all sorts of things by putting forward arguments, be they religious or political or otherwise, to justify their bad behaviour or to create a ‘them and us’ situation.”
Joanne doesn’t anticipate any flak from the Islamic community, as she says she’s treated all her characters equally and hasn’t made any judgment about what it’s like to be Muslim or Christian.
She says: “It’s about interacting within a community and the things we do to alienate each other or bring each other together.”
While she’s reluctant to go into politics, Harris, who is half-French, says that the French dealt with banning the Islamic full veil in public poorly.
“They took something that had a certain amount of rational justification and made it into a situation which was bound to go bad – and it has done.
“On the other hand, I don’t like the veil. It has been put forward as something that is necessary and Islamic when actually it’s not really. It’s very much disputed whether the Koran even refers to a full veil at all.”
Living in Huddersfield helped her research different cultures, says the former teacher.
“I’m surrounded by ethnic groups, I know plenty of Muslim people and some are very devout and some less. It’s quite easy to imagine the situation condensed into a little French village.”
Joanne has had a posh shed built at her rural home near Huddersfield to which she can escape to write. Her new short story collection will be coming out in the autumn and time will tell if she reintroduces the Chocolat characters again.
She says: “I’ve revisited these people three times and it’s a good bet that I will again. But when it will happen I don’t know.”
Peaches For Monsieur Le Cure by Joanne Harris is published by Doubleday (£18.99).
AS part of Hexham Book Festival’s Words Across Northumberland series, Joanne Harris is at The Pavilion, Alnwick Castle, Alnwick on May 31.
As part of the same series, writer Kate Williams appears at Alnwick Garden on May 30. Her book Young Elizabeth – The Making of a Queen focuses on her childhood years, in particular the abdication.
Also on May 30, Val McDermid will talk about her latest novel Retribution featuring serial killer Jacko Vance.
Ring Queens Hall Arts on 01434 652477 for tickets.