About the Book
This story has been in my mind, in one form or another, for quite some time. I finished an early version of it before I wrote Chocolat, and came back to it five years later, having realized that I still liked the characters and the story, and that I wanted to see it completed. It precedes (and complements) Chocolat in a number of ways. Firstly, my central character, Juliette, has many things in common with Vianne Rocher (most especially in terms of her relationship with her mother and her young daughter). She might easily be an ancestor of Vianne (LeMerle, too, fits in with Reynaud’s ancestry), as she too is a traveller, a witch of sorts, and has a number of unorthodox ideas on spirituality.
I also see it as a kind of prelude to Coastliners, in that it is set in much the same part of the world, and provides some information on the origins of Sainte Marie-de-la-mer (you will notice that she changed to Sainte-Marine a couple of centuries later, when she reappeared on Le Devin).
As for the setting of Holy Fools, you will find the island of Noirmoutier on most maps, though it was called Noirs Moustiers (the Monastery of the Black Friars) in 1610, and its shape has altered somewhat since then. You still won’t find Le Devin on any map, but if you go to the westernmost point of the island of Noirmoutier (it’s called La Pointe du Devin) and look out to sea, who knows? You may get lucky…
The idea for this book came to me from a French history text, in which I found a passing reference to the stringent reform of an abbey in Port-Royal by a newly-appointed Mother Superior of only eleven years of age. It will be obvious that I have borrowed from this, but for the sake of my plot I have taken a number of liberties with the details. This is quite deliberate. My story is altogether fictional, and should not be seen as a historical representation of specific events.
It is set in France, at the beginning of the 17th century, a time of political and social upheaval following the murder of the king, Henri IV. It is the story of Juliette, a onetime acrobat and rope-dancer, now retired and living under an assumed identity as a nun (of all things), with her daughter, Fleur, in a tiny island convent off the Brittany coast.
Juliette – or Soeur Auguste, as she is now known – has had a troubled and eventful life. Raised by gypsies, persecuted by the Church, separated from her adopted family, driven to begging and prostitution to make ends meet, she manages to find a kind of stability as a performer in a dance troupe led by Guy LeMerle, known as The Blackbird; an actor, playwright and petty criminal with whom the young Juliette becomes infatuated.
After some years on the road and some popular success, the troupe is scattered, following a disastrous brush with the law. Juliette, now pregnant and thoroughly disillusioned with the itinerant life, finds refuge in the abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-mer, under the protection of the kindly Abbess. However, the death of the Abbess, a few months after the murder of the king in Paris, plunges the convent into disarray. The old regime is at an end; a new Abbess has been appointed (for political reasons), a young woman of noble birth who intends to introduce reform on a grand scale. Juliette’s dismay is compounded when the new Abbess reveals herself to be a child of only eleven years of age, raised in Paris and quite unable to appreciate the needs and feelings of a group of country nuns. Worse still, she has brought her confessor with her, and Juliette recognizes him at once.
Now masquerading as a priest, Guy LeMerle, Juliette’s old associate, clearly intends mischief. Unable to unmask him without betraying herself and putting her daughter in jeopardy, Juliette is drawn unwillingly into his plans. But as LeMerle leads the nuns gradually into confusion, hysteria and finally, chaos, Juliette realizes that he has more than simple extortion in mind. And as the story builds up to a confrontation from which only one of them can escape with their life, Juliette is cruelly torn between her loyalty to her convent friends, her instinct as a mother and her enduring love for a man who has betrayed her once before, and who will not hesitate to do so again…
I have been under strong and persistent pressure to change certain elements – particularly the characters – in this story. Perhaps it’s my “admirable stroppiness” (the phrase for which I forgave Private Eye their panning of my last book), but I haven’t changed a thing. However, I sense that I may have to include some comments and explanations, just to set the record straight.
First, the Church. After Chocolat I had made up my mind never to write about the Catholic Church again. This was partly because of the many readers who misinterpreted my story as a kind of good-versus-evil morality fable, with the Catholic Church as the bad guy. This was not the case then, and it isn’t now. Religious beliefs, like political views, have always been open to abuse and misinterpretation. Churches, like any other institution, are only as good or bad as the individuals who serve them. This story is no more meant to be a pronouncement on Catholicism than Chocolat was; but like Chocolat, it is a story of faith, love and – I hope – a kind of redemption.
Which brings me to Juliette and LeMerle. Now LeMerle has already caused more controversy, four months before the book’s publication, than any other character I have ever created. I can see why; he’s selfish, cruel, underhand, disloyal and completely dedicated to getting what he wants. He is completely amoral; he has no belief in God or humanity.
On the other hand, I don’t see him entirely as a villain. In fact he is a kind of existential hero. He has many qualities; he is clever, determined, resourceful, adaptable; he is incapable of self-pity; he lives entirely by his wits; and, most importantly, he is consistent. His system of values is a personal one, based on the will to survive and his hatred of the corrupt hierarchies of Church and Court. What he does is inexcusable, but it can be understood; whatever else he is, he is not a hypocrite. He knows what he is and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of him, remaining scornful to the last: defeated, maybe, but basically unchanged and wholly unrepentant.
This, I think, is the problem. Hollywood has given us a distaste for the unrepentant sinner, and we expect our villains to die or to be converted and redeemed at the end of the third act. In this case I just couldn’t do it: partly because life isn’t always like the movies, but mostly because the little piece of me that is LeMerle wouldn’t let me.
Juliette, like Vianne, is – at least superficially – a less challenging and more easily likeable character. However, that is not to say that she is without flaws. Quite the contrary; she is in fact a kind of mirror image of LeMerle, as Vianne was of Reynaud. What divides them is their varying capacity for love. Juliette’s savage nature has, in effect, been partially tamed by her love for her daughter. LeMerle has no equivalent, and his idea of love – at first, anyway – is a very shallow, selfish one. It is perhaps hard to accept, then, that a woman like Juliette – an unusually intelligent and rational woman – should waste her love and loyalty on a man who has betrayed her so many times. However, love is not a rational choice, and is not always given to the deserving. And Juliette is not blind or self-deceiving; she knows exactly what LeMerle is, and makes no excuses for his character. Does she go back to him? Does he go back to her? Neither he or she is a standard-issue romantic hero, and so I have left the last part of their story open-ended. Fiction, like life, is a series of possibilities. Whichever one you choose, it probably happened.
A mes lecteurs français …
Mes excuses à tous ceux qui ont acheté mon nouveau roman l’Eté des Saltimbanques (Table Ronde), et qui auront sans doute remarqué le nombre d’erreurs d’imprimerie dans cette édition. Un manque de communication chez mes éditeurs a fait en sorte que la version sans corrections des premières épreuves a été publiée à la place de la version corrigée. Malheureusement il m’est impossible d’y changer quoi que ce soit à present.
Articles and Reviews
- Holy Fools
A collection of links to diverse reviews on various websites.
- The Devil We Love
Review of Holy Fools by Helen Falconer, from The Guardian
- Novel of the Week – Holy Fools
Review of Holy Fools by Amanda Craig, from the New Statesmen