The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris – review

Chocolat’s author revisits her heroine’s French village where a mysterious tattooist is getting under everyone’s skin

It is 20 years since Joanne Harris published Chocolat, her bestselling novel adapted into an Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Judi Dench. The Strawberry Thief, Harris’s fourth novel following the life of chocolatier Vianne Rocher, shares much with the original in terms of theme and setting. Again, the location is the sleepy fictional village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes in south-west France. Again, the time of year is Lent, provoking tensions between abstinence and self-fulfilment. And as with Chocolat, the arrival of a stranger to the village precipitates community tensions, questions of faith and loyalty, and fear of the unknown.

The interloper in The Strawberry Thief is Morgane Dubois, a tattooist with an uncanny ability to know the image her clients need inked on to their skin. Her arrival follows the death of the elderly florist, Narcisse, whose empty shop Morgane occupies. Much to the fury of Narcisse’s daughter, Michèle, he has left a parcel of land to Vianne’s younger daughter, Rosette, a bequest that leads to conflict and subterfuge.

Meanwhile, Narcisse, while never having been a religious man during his life, has left a lengthy written confession with the priest, Reynaud, a document that not only reveals tragedies from Narcisse’s life, but also triggers Reynaud’s guilt and self-loathing about an incident from his own past.

Mysticism and mystery abound in The Strawberry Thief. In Morgane’s tattoo parlour, clients see reflections in mirrors of people who are not present or glimpse scenes from their past they would rather forget. The wind is a constant presence – and a constant refrain – signalling both change and the threat of danger: “This is what happens, I told myself, when you try to call the wind... it takes and it keeps on taking until everything is blown away.”

Where Chocolat is a novel about the conflict between church and the individual, between pleasure and denial, The Strawberry Thief focuses on the conflicts within families. Vianne holds the secret as to why her 16-year-old daughter, Rosette, cannot speak and is tormented by the absence of her older daughter, Anouk, now living with her boyfriend in Paris. Harris writes sensitively about the precarious bond between mothers and children: “All children are stolen, my mother says. We keep them close, as long as we can. But one day, the world will steal them back.”

While Harris creates an atmospheric landscape, the novel’s storytelling might have benefited from tighter pacing. Narcisse’s lengthy confession is stolen, retrieved and returned, a MacGuffin serving predominantly to spur the novel’s living characters into action. And while Reynaud’s torment about a childhood crime adds depth to his character, his self-flagellating the narrative down. However, Harris undeniably creates an evocative world in The Strawberry Thief, and in her explorations of magic, family, grief and recovery, it is sure to delight fans of Chocolat.

The Strawberry Thief by Joanne Harris is published by Orion (£20). To order a copy go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Hannah Beckerman

The GuardianTramp

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