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Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Review by SS

This is by the author of Chocolat, and while the frame of the stories are similar, the mood and the events are anything but.

The World
The story is told by an aging widow, living in a little French village. She is hiding a secret of her past, and it's returning to disturb the quiet retirement she craves. The current story gives way to flashbacks of her childhood as she remembers.

(flashbacks) It seems Harris is a specialist in little French villages, and in cooking. Like Chocolat, the setting is a remote French village, this time under German occupation in WWII. It is still a rustic, backwards place, where everyone knows everyone. A creek runs through it, where the children of the village play, and in which an enormous pike, called Old Mother lurks. In a nearby town, German soldiers are posted, and so begin to mingle with the folk of the surrounding villages.

The Characters
The story's narrator, Framboise, in her flashbacks, is a nine year old girl. She has an older sister, Reine (also called Reine-Claude, RC, and Reinette), and an older brother, Cassis. The three children live with their mother, Mirabelle, who is an angry, hard woman, sometimes bordering on insane. Their father was killed in the war. They have a friend their own age, Paul, but they find more interesting company in Tomas, a young German soldier.

The Plot
The past-and-present plotline runs around what took place when Framboise was 9. There is a lot of mystery through the book as to hat actually happened, and that is the sustaining power of the book.

The past: Framboise meets Tomas, deals with her almost-psychotic mother.

The present: Although Framboise left the village many years ago, now she is back, under a different name, and hoping people won't make the connection. Her nephew, however, wants to know her history and Framboise fights to keep the past, secret.

The first thing that strikes me about this book is the cruelty (borne of ignorance?) with which the characters treat each other. Framboise, as a child, treated her mother with a callousness that is shocking. Her mother's "bad spells" and the temper and barely-restrained anger punctuates their relationship. This mother-daugther relationship is twisted and dark. I was constantly horrified by what they did, but it's impossible to feel sorry for anyone, because they're all that cruel. Yet, they are very human, and it's not hard to understand (sort of) why everyone what they are doing.

Two things I didn't like about this book: the use of unexplained French/German throughout (I speak neither of these languages, so have I missed something crucial?), and the many unexplained side plots. Harris doesn't explain why a lot of the time, and it gets a bit frustrating. There is a lot of mystery set up in this book, and it's a bit annoying when it doesn't all get solved.

I didn't like this book because the people were so cruel to each other. It's completely unlike the light, magical story of Chocolat. But, the writing is still wonderful and I found this book impossible to put down.

Almost 4 amulets. I think. I'm not sure on this one.

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