domingo, 4 de noviembre de 2012
Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris
In Blackberry Wine Joanne Harris presents a novel about Jay, who is a writer. Some years ago Jay created a character in Three Summers With Jackapple Joe, the novel that made his name. But since then, Jay’s products have been mediocre and his career has stalled. We meet him looking at his life, especially his relationship with Kerry, whose own media career seems to go from strength to strength. There is tolerance in the air, but resentment and envy are not far from the surface.
Jay reminisces about Joe, the ex-miner in Yorkshire who became something of a local hero for the young writer. Back in the 1970s, when Jay Mackintosh was an impressionable lad growing up in Yorkshire, Joe seemed so sophisticated, a much travelled man of the world whose collection of exotics from all over the planet facilitated the concoction of strange brews from the fruit of his plants. Blackberry Wine is actually written from the point of view of one of Joe’s bottles of home brew that survived for decades after its initial fizz. The device is interesting at the start and end of the book, but for the most part it is best ignored. It remains a good idea, but does not quite come off.
Chapters describing Jay’s present in London and then France and his past as a child and adolescent in Yorkshire are interleaved. Joe’s magic seemed to work those years ago when talismans cast spells that protected Jay from local bullies. They also seem to work when, disaffected with city life and frustrated by his continued lack of achievement, Jay disappears to a rural French farmhouse. There, lubricated by some of the home brew preserves, Jay finds himself haunted by old Joe and, once again transformed, as if by magic, newly able to write.
Jay finds that there is more than meets the eye in his little French town. The small community is riven by family feud and accusation, alongside general disagreement about how the area should develop in the future. Should it retain its rural roots or appeal to the holiday trade? Perhaps displaying latent Romanticism, Jay finds himself securely on one side of the discussion. He negotiates his way through new relationships, some mixed with a little local politics. Meanwhile his muse, Joe’s old wine and its associated ghost, encourage him to write a new and successful book.
Jay’s neighbour in France is Marise. She has a daughter, Rosa, who apparently is deaf after an illness contracted when an infant. For some unknown reason, Marise is determined to buy the very farmhouse that Jay himself has bought. The competition from over the fence intrigues Jay. He is at a loss to explain how passionately Marise appears to want his property.
Joanne Harris’s characters are thoroughly credible. Their weaknesses are truly human and their reserve makes their shortcomings understandable. But overall Blackberry Wine fails to convince. Not only is the setting in which Jay finds himself too soon accommodated by both himself and the locals, but the book simply has too many themes. Jay’s relations with the locals could have been the single focus of the book, but we also have his childhood, his inspiration, his relationships with two different women, his coming of age. As a result, none of the themes is thoroughly examined. This gives the book a lightness that aids a skimming read, but which simultaneously undermines any real engagement with the character. Some of the book’s themes, indeed, become submerged and apparently forgotten, only to spring up again without warning. The novel remains, however, a rewarding read and an interesting take on what really has the power to motivate people to achieve. There might be an added dimension of autobiography, but that would be another story.