Joanne Harris rates very high amongst my all time favourite authors; Terry Pratchett is still at number one but Harris is definitely there in either two or three, depending upon whether I'm currently reading one of her books or one of Jasper Fforde's. I really must do a Top 10 Authors review one of these days.
But, today she is at number two and, believe it or not, challenging for the top spot; I've just finished reading The Lollipop Shoes and it just may be the best book she has ever written. My heart is still pounding from the final page and I just had to get my feelings down on paper before my head explodes.
It's nearly ten years since we heard from Vianne Rocher. When we left her at the end of "Chocolat" she was running away again. Too many things had happened, sad things, happy things, terrible things. Too many malevolent spirits chasing her across the years, getting too close for comfort. As she has spent her entire life, so she is again, on the move, with her daughter Anouk and some suitcases.
If you only saw the film and didn't read the book then put it right out of your mind. Entertaining though it was it was a travesty of the book; the film turned the whole story upside-down. Undoubtedly pressure was put on Hollywood to change the story line; I expect that the Catholic Church already had enough problems on it's hands with stories coming out of child abuse without a film coming along with a priest as the villain.
So, what has been happening to Vianne and Anouk since then? Well, it appears that the ancient spirits, "The Kindly Ones" have not given up their pursuit. They have chased them to the town of Les Laveuses (also the setting for "Five Quarters of the Orange", which story is also related in a way, to this one) and once again they have to move, but now they are three. Younger daughter Rosette now accompanies them and this time it is to Paris they flee, to try to lose their identities in the great city.
As Yanne Charbonneau, Vianne and her small family are trying to survive without being too conspicuous. Vianne is once again in the chocolate business in the "Village within the City", Montmartre. But this time she is definitely not using her witchcraft. No, no, that would just attract the attention of The Kindly Ones. She has forsaken witchcraft forever, or so she thinks. But soon she is going to need every ounce of her talent.
For it is their identities that interests someone else, someone who also moves from place to place, someone who also uses witchcraft and isn't at all afraid to use any weapon at her command to satisfy her lust for souls. Zozie de l'Alba, as she is calling herself now, has need of a new identity; things are getting far too hot with the last one she stole. Vianne is it. Soon Vianne will be in a battle for her life, her family and her friends with her new enemy. But how soon will it take her to realise it? Will she be too late?
The Lollipop Shoes is written in the first person but the first person written from three different points of view, Vianne, Anouk and Zozie. Each chapter is a different person's part of the story and successive chapters may be the same person. Until you realise, it could be confusing but help is at hand. Each chapter starts with a different symbol, the sun for Vianne, the Moon for Anouk and a "cat" for Zozie.
Right from the start you know Zozie's plan, how she intends to execute it, who will be her victims and who her unwitting accomplices. We also see who is immune to her charms and who can see her for what she really is. Will it be enough? The story flows at a pounding rate and the narrative just grips you and forces you to read just another page, chapter... Her characters just leap off of the page; you have absolutely no problem in visualising them in all their terrible splendour.
You get so involved in the story your mind is shouting, "How can you not see what's going on!". But Harris's characters all have their own motivations, and as each background is revealed a little more we understand just why it is that they don't want to see what's right in front of their eyes. For each their personal history is what they are running from. A painful past makes them wary of the present and blind to their intended future.
We learn most about Vianne herself. Most of all she learns about herself and in the end she learns that above all we must be true to ourselves, no matter what the consequences. If anything the story is one of rediscovery and acceptance. Most of all it is about courage and repentance. Will it be the salvation of Vianne Rocher?
For that, you'll have to read the book.