This completes the “food trilogy” (Chocolat, Blackberry Wine) and explores some of the same themes, although this third book is much darker than the previous two. Set in a small village near Angers on the Loire, it deals with the fortunes of a widow and her three children, Cassis, Reine-Claude and Framboise, against the background of the German Occupation. With no father and only their harsh and overworked mother to care for them, the three children inhabit a strange and brutal world in which adults are a different race, and which works according to a completely different set of moral values. Into this circle comes Tomas Leibnitz, a German soldier who secretly befriends the three children and leads them step-by-step into a world of betrayal, blackmail and lies.
A lifetime later, Framboise, the last survivor of the ill-fated group, returns under a different identity to the village in which she was born, meaning to make a new start as the proprietor of a small crêperie-restaurant. But she is still haunted by the past and by an unresolved mystery, recalled once more to life by the encrypted writing in her mother’s old book of recipes.
If Blackberry Wine is about my paternal grandfather, then Five Quarters of the Orange is about my mother’s father (portrayed in uniform on the back cover). He was in the army during the war, and was decorated twice with the Légion d’Honneur, and during the Occupation he and his family lived in the local schoolhouse (he was a teacher). Later, he was denounced to the Gestapo by the wife of a friend who was in the Resistance, and he and his family were forced to go on the run and hide out on a relative’s farm in the country. When I was little my grandfather told me hundreds of stories about his experiences of the war and the Occupation, and I was fascinated at the idea that this old man who smoked a pipe and liked fishing (as well as spending hours doing complex mathematical exercises for pleasure) had once been a real hero. His anecdotes were very different from the “official” version of events, and that’s why the book is so subjective; it’s not a historical perspective but one person’s story, and writing it brought back a lot of memories of him, some of them uncomfortable, all of them very vivid. My mother, who translates my books into French, likes this one best of all, which is a relief, as I don’t want to upset anyone in the family (with a couple of minor exceptions).
Five Quarters, like Chocolat and Blackberry Wine, is a story about food as a metaphor for change, but in this case the transformation is not always benign. As a child Framboise deliberately torments her mother with the scent of the orange which brings on her migraines – food here is used as a weapon rather than an agent of kindness. It is only much later in her life that Framboise is able to understand her mother and to forgive her, and at the same time forgive herself. Food continues to be a source of pleasure, but here it is far from simple; it is politicized by the fact that much of it is in short supply; it becomes a means of bartering and blackmail, both during the war and in the present day; it becomes an expression of style (much to the elderly Framboise’s disgust); a gateway into the past, a means of self-assertion and finally, the agent of a long-delayed reconciliation between mothers and daughters.
Five Quarters is also a story about childhood. As an ex-teacher and mother of a young child I find it easier perhaps to visualize the darker side of childhood, the occasional strangeness which exists in even the most well-behaved and affectionate of our children. Children are far more complex creatures than the Victorian ideal would have us believe; and the children of Five Quarters are neither well-behaved nor affectionate, but have evolved a system of behaviour which has little to do with that of the adults around them, with survival their main priority, and power their only currency. Framboise especially has had to grow up fast. Having lost her father at such an early age that little remains of him in her memory, believing herself unloved by her undemonstrative mother, in constant conflict with her siblings, she has developed a greater cynicism than her years would suggest, and a more certain understanding of the weaknesses of others. Her cruelty against her mother is terribly refined and entirely conscious, and yet on other levels Framboise is very naïve and vulnerable, wanting to love and be loved. It is this vulnerability which inevitably draws her to Tomas leibnitz. He becomes a focus for Framboise’s emergent – and hitherto unconscious – sexuality as well as a fantasy father-figure for all three children. More importantly, perhaps, he plays the role of intermediary between the adult world and that of the children; joining in their games, vindicating their actions and putting the seal of authority on their betrayals.
For Five Quarters is a novel about betrayal; intimate betrayals, unspoken betrayals, betrayals within the family, the wider community and out into war-torn France. For Framboise this “ripple effect” goes on through the years, gaining momentum and widening its circle all the time. An appropriate image in a story where the symbolic presence of Old Mother, the terrible, quasi-mythic old river pike, is never far away. For me she represents the unspeakable fears of childhood; the fear of death and sexuality, the twin Freudian monsters of the subconscious.
They are not fears a child like Framboise can articulate, even to herself. In fact, in Five Quarters no-one articulates very much. For Mirabelle, food and its preparation remain the only means of communication between herself and her children, and her only expression of love. The elderly Framboise exists in a stage of siege where any release of emotion is an admission of weakness. Her own daughters are rapidly becoming estranged from her in spite of her desperate love for them; pride forbids her to call them back. Her nephew and his grasping wife hide their secret agenda behind sweet platitudes. Ironically it is Paul, the boy who once stuttered so badly that he preferred hardly to speak at all, who breaks the cycle of inarticulacy, although not even he is without guilt.
As I said, it is a much darker tale than either Chocolat or Blackberry Wine. The world of childhood is not always either sunny or innocent, and the monsters of childhood are as real and terrifying as any of the horrors of war. The fear and hostility which exists between the children and her mother, as well as the final, fatal incident which breaks up the family, marks every member of the group for the rest of their lives. Framboise, especially, is marked; although it is she who eventually manages to redeem the past and to move on. For although Five Quarters is bleak in parts, I think it remains a hopeful and optimistic story. It’s about love, and how love can save us, and how it’s never too late to put the past behind us and to move on. From being a weapon, food becomes a link between past and present, reconciles opposing forces, and provides an element of continuity between the generations. Through the recipe book, Framboise and her mother find common ground and a kind of affection; it aids the reconciliation between Framboise and her own daughters; it closes the circle.