It isn’t often you receive a letter from the dead. When Vianne Rocher receives a letter from beyond the grave, she has no choice but to follow the wind that blows her back to Lansquenet, the village in south-west France where, eight years ago, she opened up a chocolate shop. But Vianne is completely unprepared for what she finds there. Women veiled in black, the scent of spices and peppermint tea, and there, on the bank of the river Tannes, facing the square little tower of the church of Saint-Jerome like a piece on a chessboard – slender, bone-white and crowned with a silver crescent moon – a minaret. Nor is it only the incomers from North Africa that have brought big changes to the community. Father Reynaud, Vianne’s erstwhile adversary, is now disgraced and under threat. Could it be that Vianne is the only one who can save him?
Vianne Rocher, the woman who set up shop in Lansquenet in Chocolat returns to the town at the request of one of her friends – now long dead – via a letter left for her to be handed over on her grandson’s 21st birthday.
She brings her two daughters Anouk and Rosette (and their not-quite-invisible friends) with her, but her partner Roux remains in Paris on their house boat. His anger at how the boat people were treated the last time has not disappaited enough for him to return. Vianne returns to find things have changed significantly – Father Renaud is no longer saying mass in the church, and is in some kind of disgrace and the old tanneries outside of town is now packed with Muslims from North Africa. The influx of these second and third generation immigrants – barely keeping inside the law with respect to their mosque and schools – is causing tension within the community and Vianne has returned into this tension between the two communities.
Vianne uses her charm and special skills in an attempt to bring some form of calm to the community. She comes across some of her old adversaries, many of whom are in various levels of success or disappointment. The young Muslim women, who previously had enjoyed a level of western freedom of dress, are taking to the veil and removing themselves from community, and it is seen to be the effect of another recent arrival in town, who remains under the veil since the day she arrived.
Finally things come to a head, where people have gone missing, the river-rats (including Roux) have arrived back in town, and it seems there have a lot of accusations, misunderstandings, and secrets are exposed on both sides that mean the story reaches a crisis point, and it is only a meeting of both groups around the river (that metaphorically and physically runs between the two sets of people) that brings things to a head and allows it to be resolved.
There is the usual magical realism in this, where Vianne uses her skills (Chocolate, Tarot cards, reading colours/auras) to try and work out what’s happening. Vianne’s lack of self confidence kicks in when she sees the son of a friend, who was born after Chocolat, and whose father just might be Roux. The story is told from a French atheist (pagan?) woman and the local Catholic priest, rather than that of any Muslim, so this can only be told from their point of view. Each woman is portrayed as a human first, rather than a stereotype, and the story goes some way as to show how things are handled according to the strict rules of each person’s community…
This is/was a well timed book, having been published in 2012, when there were still questions over whether the Niqab was to be banned in France. I have seen some reviewers complain that perhaps Muslim women should be allowed to tell their own stories their own way, but until Western readers and publishers are open enough to publish (buy, read, promote) books by Muslim women, then we will have to make use of those who can handle the story adequately.
Have you read this book? Did you have issues about how any particular person/type of person was depicted? Is it a case of Christians being depicted “better” than Muslims (or vice versa) in this book? Any recommendations as to books written about or by Muslim (women) that could be accessed by Westerners?