By now I ought to know that wind. It smells of other places. It promises danger, and sunlight, and joy. It dances through the motes of light in shades of chilli and peppercorn. It catches at the back of the throat like unexpected laughter. And in the end it takes them all; everything you laboured for. Everything you imagined you could somehow take with you. And it always begins in a moment of playfulness; even of joy. A moment of brightness between the clouds. A taste of sweetness; a ringing of bells.
Sometimes, even a fall of snow.
THE STRAWBERRY THIEF is the fourth in a series of novels that began with CHOCOLAT, and which continues the story of Vianne Rocher and her daughters, Anouk and Rosette, in the French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.
Vianne Rocher has settled down. Lansquenet-sous-Tannes, the place that once rejected her, has finally become her home. With Rosette, her ‘special’ child, she runs her chocolate shop in the square, talks to her friends on the river, is part of the community. Even Reynaud, the priest, has become a friend.
But when old Narcisse, the florist, dies, leaving a parcel of land to Rosette and a written confession to Reynaud, the life of the sleepy village is once more thrown into disarray. The arrival of Narcisse’s relatives, the departure of an old friend and the opening of a mysterious new shop in the place of the florist’s across the square – one that mirrors the chocolaterie, and has a strange appeal of its own – all seem to herald some kind of change: a confrontation, a turbulence – even, perhaps, a murder.
Some fictional characters are happy to say goodbye at the end of a book. Others keep returning, to such an extent that it becomes increasingly hard to think of them as fictional at all. Vianne Rocher is one of those characters: linked to me across the years in so many ways, not least in her role as a parent, so like and yet so unlike my own adventures in parenting.
It is over twenty years since I began to write CHOCOLAT. At the time I was a French teacher in a northern grammar school; mother to a four-year-old child; author of two Gothic novels which, even in my most hopeful moments, could only be said to have reached a very cultish readership. I had no idea then what that funny little book, ostensibly about a chocolate shop in a small French village, would mean to us over the next few years. I had even less suspicion that its characters would grow with me, follow, yes, and haunt me – the theme may have been chocolate, but the ghosts have remained: the ghosts of ourselves, demanding to be listened to.
In 2018, I narrated the new audiobook of CHOCOLAT. It was like revisiting a previous version of myself; the voice was definitely mine, and yet it was different in so many ways. Writing THE STRAWBERRY THIEF was like that: it felt as if I were visiting an alternate reality. I wrote it as my daughter (now aged 25) was preparing to get married and go off to live in Moscow; as old friends died; as new plans were made. It may not be the last of Vianne, but it marks a heavy punctuation point, if not a full stop, in the tale we both share. We have been together for a long time, Vianne and I. We have watched our children grow; we have shared our deepest fears. And now the winds are turning again, and only Vianne can stop them from blowing everything away.
This is a book about letting go; and adulthood; and falling in love; and learning to accept the marks and scars that Life inflicts on us. It takes us almost full circle from CHOCOLAT, twenty years ago. Thank you for still being here, you readers who were there from the start. I hope you like it.
For a piece on the way in which I used scent to illustrate this novel, click here.
Q & A:
Q: Why did you choose to go back to Lansquenet again?
A: I don’t choose these things. They choose me. It was time.
Q: Do you have to have read the previous three books in the series to appreciate this one?
A: No, I don’t think so. Since CHOCOLAT, I’ve gained a lot of new young readers who may not have read any of the other books: I wanted to give them the chance to enter Vianne’s world any way and in any order they wanted. It’s fine if you’ve read the others, but no: it isn’t mandatory…
Q: Will there be more books about Vianne?
A: I think so: if not specifically about Vianne, then about Anouk and Rosette, whose stories are only beginning…
Q: How hard it is to revisit something as successful and well-loved as CHOCOLAT?
A: Surprisingly easy. You’d think it would be hard to get back into the role, but the world I built is always still there, waiting for me to find my way back. And it is always welcoming.
Thinking of studying THE STRAWBERRY THIEF as part of a readers’ group? Here’s a handy guide to get you started…
Sometimes you don’t need to worry about a novel at all. You open the book, start reading, and find that it’s sheer pleasure from start to finish. The Strawberry Thief is a delight (James Runcie)
With The Strawberry Thief Harris proves that earlier episodes of Chocolat were only the first tiers in an expanding box of delights. But just as she reveals new layers in her mysterious, magical world she also opens a doorway to darkness. Mark her down as a sweet tooth at your peril, for there’s a sharp bite too. I devoured it in one go (Christopher Fowler)
Compelling, captivating, incredibly moving, The Strawberry Thief whirls you into a thrilling world you will never forget. Harris’s Vianne is as unforgettable and courageous as ever, and Lansquenet-sous-Tannes is depicted with such heart and beautiful detail that it is marvellously alive – as everything in the village changes overnight. I loved this book. A perfect novel that shimmers with brilliance and truth (Kate Williams)
So wise, so atmospheric, so beautifully written (Marian Keyes)
As her legions of fans already know, Joanne Harris has created a very special place in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes. It’s the kind of quaint (yet ever-evolving) little village that we feel we might stumble upon on our next trip to France. It is too a place of magic and mysteries, and Harris excels in this delicate balance of realism and enchantment. This alchemy is amply demonstrated In The Strawberry Thief, in which we meet old friends and new, uncover long-held secrets and, along the way, explore the nature of guilt, responsibility and love. It will intrigue and charm readers every bit as much as Chocolat (Monica Ali)