Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris (Black Swan)

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang’s best read novel of 2013.

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne HarrisLooking back over the novels I have read in 2013, without a doubt my best read is Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange; a bitter sweet unravelling of wartime secrets and taboos in northern France. The heroine, Framboise Dartigen, is the sort of dour old French widow I knew as a child in France. Yet even in the 1970s whether playing on the beach in La Baule, cycling round the salt marshes of Guerande, or hanging out in cafes in Tours, a sixth sense told me there were things that one did not ask about the War.

When Framboise buys up her mother’s abandoned farmhouse and returns to the village of her childhood, she takes care that no one recognises her lest they discover her terrible wartime secret. She has inherited nothing from her mother but her old recipe book written in a strange language. She uses it as a basis to start a Creperie, and the little restaurant becomes a success. When her nephew and his wife come down from Paris to persuade her sell her mother’s recipes so they can market them in their Paris restaurant, her cover threatens to be blown.
Just as the nine year old Framboise laid traps and lines to catch “Old Mother” pike on the River Loire, so Harris weaves her story lines around the war memorials, orchards, markets, cafes and farmhouses of the Loire. Deprivation, love, black market wheeler dealing and hardship; all the complex emotional landscapes of the characters are narrated through the symbolism of food and the rhythms of rural life. I tasted the buckwheat pancakes, cider, jams and rilletes. I shivered at anchovies drowning in barrels of olive oil in the cellar, in which the young Framboise hides the forbidden oranges she uses to torture her mother.

The storm scenes over the Loire and ruined harvest, which herald the unravelling of the tragedy, remind me of the best of Francois Mauriac; Mauriac’s Bordeaux pines and rain beaten grape vines are Harris’s Loire Valley fruit trees and wheat fields. I gasped when at last the identity of Framboise is revealed and formality falls away as someone simply calls the old lady by her childhood nickname, “Please Boise.”
This is a brutal yet gentle masterpiece on the nature of the hard part inside- grief. It is a story which in some ways answered some of the questions I myself as a child never dared to ask about life in German occupied France.

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang

Rhiannon Jenkins Tsang is the author of The Woman Who Lost China, published by Open Books in June 2013 http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/the-woman-who-lost-china/about-book.html. She lives in Nottinghamshire.

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