Peaches for Monsieur le Curé
As I was writing The Lollipop Shoes, I realized that I was creating a dangerous precedent. It isn’t always easy for a writer to revisit the characters they have created - time changes all of us, and sometimes it’s easier not to look back. But as I finished the book, I knew that what I’d done was worse than that; I’d written the second instalment of what would be a trilogy. Even now, I’m not convinced that Vianne has entirely finished with me – there may be more about her some day (or indeed, about Anouk and Rosette); we are linked, she and I, in ways that I don’t always fully understand. I’m connected to all my characters, of course, but somehow Vianne Rocher is the one who keeps dropping in unexpectedly, embroiling me in her affairs (often against my better judgement) and demanding my time and attention.
In The Lollipop Shoes, we found Vianne four years on from the events described in Chocolat. Living in Paris under an alias, with her daughter Anouk and another, four-year-old daughter, Rosette, Vianne seemed to have lost both her direction and her identity. But thanks to Zozie de l’Alba, a malignant free spirit with an appetite for other peoples’ lives, Vianne was finally forced to confront both her enemy and her fears. I left her in Paris with her children and Roux, once more reconciled to herself, at peace with her past and half-convinced that she has managed to find a way to settle down –
But with Vianne, things are never that easy. I always knew that at some point, the wind would start to blow again. I also knew that Lansquenet had not quite finished with either of us. And Vianne, like myself, tends to specialize in always doing the very thing she has promised not to do – in this case, returning to Lansquenet. The question was never if, but when. There are some currents that cannot be resisted.
It was only a matter of time.
Four years have passed since The Lollipop Shoes. Vianne and Roux are still living in Paris on their houseboat-chocolaterie. Anouk is fifteen, on the cusp of young womanhood. Rosette is eight, facing challenges of her own. Then, on a changing summer wind, comes a letter from the dead, calling them back to Lansquenet…
But in eight years, Lansquenet has changed. The cobbled streets, the whitewashed church, the disused tanneries along the river – all are just as they always were. But in Les Marauds, a community of Moroccans has arisen, with women veiled in black, the scent of incense, spices, kif and mint tea, and facing the church, on the far side of the Tannes, a minaret....
Q: What was it like, going back to Lansquenet?
A: Like Vianne, for a long time I was reluctant to go. Like Vianne, I was divided between my desire to explore new places and the feeling that I’d left something important behind me. In the end, it was surprisingly easy. I was afraid it might have changed beyond all recognition, which would have made me sad, but in some ways I would have been equally dissatisfied if it hadn’t changed at all. In Chocolat, I portrayed a rural, isolated French community of the type that has barely altered in fifty years; in Peaches I wanted to show the effect of change on that community. That’s why I introduced another ethnic group to Lansquenet – not a common occurrence in the rural Southwest – to explore the ways in which two quite different cultures might interact (or not) in such a traditional setting.
Q: I’m confused. When exactly is this story set?
A: Chocolat was timeless in some ways, in that it could have been set at almost any time. Lollipop Shoes, with its Paris setting, was inevitably contemporary. Peaches is set at a very specific time; during Ramadan, in August of 2010, just before the French government banned the wearing of the Islamic veil.
Q : Isn’t it a bit risky, writing about Islam these days?
Peaches isn’t about Islam any more than Chocolat was about Catholicism. Both stories are about intolerance, prejudice, xenophobia and the way in which religion can be used to reinforce those things.
Q: Where did the idea come from?
A: I live in a town with a substantial Muslim population. I’ve noticed a growing number of young women wearing niqab (the face-veil). I talked to some of them about their reasons for this, and received some very different answers, ranging from; “Because my husband wants me to,” to; “Because I don’t want to have to talk to anyone I don’t know,” to; “Because it’s my right to wear it.” At the same time, France was preparing to ban the veil altogether (even headscarves are banned in French schools). At the time it seemed to make perfect sense to bring the topic to Lansquenet.
Q: There’s a lot about the niqab in this book. Why?
A: Because I find it interesting. On the one hand it’s such a stark image of isolation; on the other it’s a very small piece of fabric to have caused so much controversy. The veil has been so many things to so many people over the years; a symbol of oppression; a sign of devotion; a flag of political protest. In France, a country that prides itself on its ideals of freedom and equality, it has been banned. I’m interested in why.
Q: Do you think it should be banned?
A: I’d much rather women didn’t wear the veil, but I’m not sure legislation will address the complex issues surrounding it, which have become political, rather than simply religious. I don’t think religion and politics mix well. I mistrust anyone who uses religion as part of a political agenda.
Q: In Chocolat, the priest is pretty much the bad guy of the piece. In Peaches, he’s almost a hero. Why?
A: I’d always thought Francis Reynaud was more misunderstood than bad. He has plenty of faults – he’s intolerant, judgemental and arrogant - but in the end he has always done what he thought best according to his beliefs. He has mellowed a little since Chocolat, although he is still rather set in his ways. But, like Vianne in Lollipop Shoes, Reynaud has a journey to make, and in some ways, Peaches is his story.
Q: What about Vianne?
A: It’s her story, too. I’ve always thought that Vianne and Reynaud had more in common than they knew. Too many readers of Chocolat were quick to assume a black-and-white portrayal of the two main protagonists. I guess they’ll have to re-assess their opinion.
Q: Do you revisit any other characters from Chocolat in this book?
A: Yes; ever since Chocolat I’d been concerned that I’d left a number of unresolved plot issues - especially about the relationship between Joséphine and Roux. In Peaches, some of those questions are answered. Not all of them, but life isn’t like that…
Q: What about Inès Bencharki? Tell me a little about her.
A: The woman at the heart of the current problems in Lansquenet bears some similarities with Vianne herself. Like Vianne, she is a single woman with a young daughter. Like Vianne, she moves into the house directly opposite the church and comes into conflict with the Curé. But unlike Vianne, Inès is fiercely aloof, even with those of her own community of Les Marauds. Hidden under her black veil, she seems as impervious to hostility as she is to gossip, scandal or offers of friendship. Even Vianne’s magic – even her chocolates - have no power over her.
Q: So - has Vianne finally met her match?
A: In all these books, Vianne’s main adversary has always been some reflection of herself. In Chocolat, she had to face the spectre of the Man In Black, a childhood fear personified by Francis Reynaud. In Lollipop Shoes, the spectre was Zozie de l’Alba, an image of what Vianne might have been without the love of her children. In Peaches, Vianne will have to confront both her fear and her prejudice…
Q: Why set the book during Ramadan?
A: Partly because I like the parallels with Chocolat, which was set during Lent. The relationship between fasting and feasting is a complex one, and I wanted to revisit the idea from a different perspective.
Q: Was it a challenge, writing about a different culture?
A: It’s always a challenge, but I don’t think so much about writing about any particular culture, as trying to understand what people find important. My initial point of entry is through food, but food as a reflection of what people feel and how they relate to each other, rather than a collection of recipes.
Q: Yes, I notice that this book has food in the title again. Was that a conscious decision?
A: I liked the juxtaposition of food and fasting (the working title of this book was Peaches at Ramadan) because both are such emotional concepts. As for the peach, it’s a powerful image in folklore and fairytale, and it seemed the perfect symbol for what I was trying to convey.
Q: There’s a lot of sensuality in this book. Was that deliberate?
A: I don’t really plan these things. But I like a story to be a whole-immersion experience, which means that I like to explore tastes, scents and sensations as well as just sounds and visual impressions.
Q: What about magic? Is there really room for magic in a book set in the present day ?
A: Absolutely. If anything, I think we need magic more than ever before. But my magic has never been about pyrotechnics. It’s the magic of everyday things, which is more about change than anything else – that is, changing the world around us, one step at a time, as well as changing the way others see us, which is the kind of magic to which we all have access…