Enigmatic chocolatier Vianne Rocher swept into our psyche in the picturesque, sleepy little fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes some 20 years ago - and today, Chocolat creator Joanne Harris contemplates how life has panned out for herself and her heroine.
The bestselling novel starts at the beginning of Lent, when Vianne arrives in the village with her six-year-old daughter Anouk to open a chocolaterie in the square opposite the church, to the outrage of the local priest, Father Reynaud. Yet despite his protests, she gently changes the lives of the villagers who visit her, with a combination of sympathy, subversion and a little magic.
“I was told Chocolat wouldn’t sell and people wouldn’t be interested in that sort of scenario,” she says now. “Clearly that wasn’t true, and I’m astonished on a daily basis as to how many people are still deeply invested in those characters and those stories - and it’s wonderful.”
Harris has also written a new book, The Strawberry Thief, the fourth continuation - not sequel, she is adamant - of the story, which sees Vianne for once feeling a little insecure and unsure of what the future holds, as her daughter Anouk has flown the nest.
When the local florist dies, leaving a piece of woodland to Vianne’s other daughter, Rosette, it stirs up all sorts of trouble, as the late florist’s own money-grabbing daughter tries to reclaim what she believes is rightfully hers. Harris admits that Viann and all of the remaining characters have changed, just as she has in the last 20 years.
“She has changed because I have changed. I’m not quite the same person I was 20 years ago. We are not each other, of course, but we do have a lot of things in common,” says Barnsley-born Harris.
“We are both the mother of a child. When I wrote Chocolat, I was the mother of a four-year-old and now I’m the mother of a 25-year-old, and you can write from those perspectives only when you’ve actually been there.”
In the book, Vianne misses her eldest child Anouk (Harris’s own daughter is called Anouchka). Similarly, Harris admits she did feel a sense of empty nest when Anouchka left home.
“This book is very much about separation and loss and coming to terms with the fact that you don’t have quite the same role as you once did as a parent, and children have to be free to live their lives and do what they want to do. It’s a difficult thing for any parent.”
The Strawberry Thief is £20.