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Peaches for Father Francis
Joanne Harris
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INTRODUCTION

As the new moon rises and Paris languishes in the August heat, Vianne Rocher beckons the summer wind. What possible harm could come from a tiny breeze, one just enough to stir the air in her sweltering kitchen? But Vianne knows from experience that the wind is seldom predictable and always brings change. What she doesn’t expect, however, is a letter from a dead friend summoning her to Lansquenet, the village she left eight years ago.

Arriving with her daughters, Vianne finds Lansquenet apparently as she left it. Even Father Francis Reynaud, her nemesis from the days when she sold chocolates in the parish, seems almost unchanged. But a closer inspection reveals that time hasn’t stood completely still. Carried on the wind are scents—charred wood from a recent fire, exotic spices, Moroccan hashish—that belie the illusion. A mosque now stands across the Tannes river, opposite the church. There are women wearing traditional Muslim veils. Calls to prayer compete with Father Francis’s church bells.

More than a bridge divides the two sides of the river. A deep mistrust of Inès Bencharki, a woman who strictly adheres to Islamic tradition, has alienated villagers of both faiths. Her very presence has brought nothing but mistrust and discord. Could she be the influence which has brought about this change? Or might her veil also hide secrets that could tear the village apart?

As neighbor turns against neighbor, any hope that the two communities could come together seems to be dashed. Father Francis, suspected of being the arsonist who destroyed Inès Bencharki’s school for girls, could lose more than his church. War is about to break out in Lansquenet. And Vianne Rocher might be the only one who can stop it.


ABOUT JOANNE HARRIS

Joanne Harris, part French and part English, found the inspiration for her novel Chocolat in her own family history and folklore—herself having lived in a sweet–shop and being the great–granddaughter of a Frenchwoman known locally as a witch and a healer who once disguised herself as an apparition of the Virgin Mary to shock the local priest. Harris, who studied at St. Catharine’s College in Cambridge where she received a BA and an MA in French and German, teaches French in an English school and lives in Yorkshire, England, with her husband and daughter.


A CONVERSATION WITH JOANNE HARRIS

Q. Traveling for your books takes you around the world. How are your books received differently from country to country? What do you think accounts for the differences?

My books are now published in more than fifty countries, and I try to share my time as evenly as I can, although there are some territories I’ve not yet managed to visit. The differences in the way my books are received and interpreted are mostly due, I think, to varying translation styles, cultural attitudes and reading habits, although these differences are relatively small—my stories deal largely with universal themes, familiar to every culture. Nevertheless I find that my darker, more troubling stories—Gentlemen and Players, Blueeyedboy, Five Quarters of the Orange—are greeted with more enthusiasm in Europe, especially in Scandinavian countries, where readers are used to darker, more challenging themes, while my lighter, more “feel–good” books are more popular in Latin countries and the U.S., where readers value escapism and sensuality, and prefer to identify directly with the characters in the books. Countries with a strong tradition of food and Catholicism (Italy, Portugal, Spain) understand and love my Chocolat books, while countries with a strong background in folklore and mythology (Iceland, Scandinavia) seem to enjoy my fantasy books (Runemarks, Runelight). Having said that, it’s hard to generalize. Readers basically gravitate to what suits them most, and I enjoy their different reactions.

Q. Did you, like Vianne, find it difficult to return to Lansquenet? How did you feel about the changes that had occurred since you wrote about it in Chocolat?

I was slightly anxious about returning to Lansquenet, mostly because I loved the place, but knew that over the course of eight years, certain aspects of it would have changed. Change is never entirely comfortable, but it is the engine that drives a story, and, like Vianne, I knew I would have to confront some of those differences before the story could come to life. The most significant change, of course, is the growth of the Moroccan community across the river and its effect on the locals, but eight years have also wrought changes in the internal politics of the village, and Francis Reynaud, seeing his position of power threatened by recent circumstances, finds himself in the humiliating position of having to ask for Vianne’s help. I rather enjoyed this reversal of roles—I’d always felt that Reynaud had hidden qualities, but that it would take a crisis to bring out his true personality. As for Vianne, I always knew that if she were ever to find her place in the world, she would have to go back to Lansquenet and confront the fears that pushed her to leave. I think that Vianne is essentially afraid, both of change, and of rejection, which is why she seems so incapable of settling down or accepting permanent relationships. In Peaches, she learns to look at herself—one more step on the road to self–knowledge.

Q. What inspired you to write this novel?

The novel continues a series of books (of which the last was Blueeyedboy) investigating the idea of real and false identity: the faces we show to other people; how we perceive others; what lies we tell; what image we choose to project to the world. In 2010, at the beginning of Ramadan, when France was on the verge of banning the veil in public places (several other countries had already done so), a story about the niqab—that much–disputed little piece of fabric, that simultaneously hides and proclaims—seemed a perfect continuation of the same theme.

Q. Were you concerned at all about the sensitive themes in this book? How do you expect Muslim readers to react? Would you ever make changes in order to avoid controversy?

I’ve heard a great deal about the “sensitive issues” of this book. I’m not sure why they’re seen as especially sensitive—perhaps because I’m a non–Muslim, writing about people from a different culture. I do, however, live in a community with a large Muslim population, and where, as a teacher, I was involved in the affairs of the mosque and of the local community. Some of my characters are based on real people: Inès Bencharki’s story was taken from a real–life account. I have tried to depict the people of Lansquenet—both Muslim and Catholic—as sympathetically and as honestly as I can, without making generalizations or succumbing to the irrational pressures of those who believe that writers should never venture from the narrow channels of their personal experience. Muslim readers in the UK have been very kind and supportive of this—in fact, the only criticism I have received so far has been from non–Muslims suffering from too much political correctness.

Q. This reading group guide asks readers their opinion on controversies surrounding France’s banning of the veil and passionate opposition to mosques being built in the United States. What sorts of feelings have similar controversies in England stirred in you?

Not being affiliated to any religious group, I think everyone should be free to worship as and where they choose, as long as their belief does not extend to persecution or intolerance. However, I do mistrust those who bring religion into politics, or use it as an excuse for repression, violence or hatred. As for the face veil, I dislike it for a number of reasons—as a feminist, I believe it isolates women by making it almost impossible for them to interact with people outside their community—but to legislate against it would be equally wrong, giving further ammunition to extremists and encouraging racial hostility. Instead we should be asking ourselves why some women now wear the veil when their mothers and grandmothers did not; it’s a complex and emotional issue, which needs to be looked at carefully.

Q. You’re a pioneer in the exceedingly successful marriage of food and fiction. How has your writing influenced your taste in food and vice versa?

It hasn’t, really. I’ve always believed that food was the first and simplest means of accessing a different culture—even without knowing the language or local customs, anyone can try a new dish. When I travel, I always eat whatever is most special to the people around me, even if I find it strange or distasteful. To me, it’s a mark of respect to the host country. As for the marriage of fiction and food—these things have always been close in European folklore; all we need to do is look at our childhood fairy tales to see the talismanic properties of food and the importance of feasting and fasting. Food is at the same time a simple and very complex subject, loaded with ritual, history and emotional resonance. I don’t see myself as a pioneer but as following a long tradition.

Q. Vianne thinks it’s important for children to have an imaginary (or not so imaginary) friend. Did—or should I say, do—you have one?

I did, once, although Pantoufle was originally my daughter’s. Imaginary friends are often the expression of ideas too difficult for a young child to articulate, and shouldn’t be seen as a cause for alarm, but as an opportunity to understand and to communicate.

Q. Everyone’s a critic these days. Do you ever read readers’ reviews of your books online? How do you feel about such feedback being available?

I read them occasionally, without paying too much attention to them. Opinions are so varied (and so freely expressed) that I don’t trust much of what I read—although there are some excellent bloggers whose opinions I have come to respect.

Q. What books or authors have inspired you? Are there any that you turn to again and again?

Victor Hugo, especially Les Misérables, a book I loved as an adolescent and to which I return again and again, finding new things to admire at every re–reading; Nabokov, for his exquisite command of the language; Ray Bradbury, for his masterly narrative skills and his irrepressible joie de vivre.

10. What are you working on now? Can we look forward to reading about our friends in Lansquenet in a new novel?

I don’t generally discuss works in progress, but I’m certain that one day there will be another story about Vianne—or maybe her daughters. I’ve become very fond of them all, and of Lansquenet–sous–Tannes, and something tells me it won’t be long before that wind starts blowing again . . .


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. France recently sparked controversy over its ban on full veils for women in public places in order “to preserve French culture and to fight what they see as separatist tendencies among Muslims” (the New York Times, April 11, 2011). What are your views of such laws? How would enforcing this law have affected events in Lansquenet?

  2. The United States has seen its own share of controversy over objections to mosques or Islamic community centers, most notably in Tennessee and near the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. What are the positions of both sides of the argument? How do you feel about the controversy? How do the villagers in Lansquenet feel about the mosque? What about Father Francis? How do you view his argument against the Mosque?

  3. What do you think are Inès’s true motives for deciding to stay in Lansquenet? Knowing Karim’s background, how might her actions have protected the girls in the village? Do you think that was one of her goals? Why or why not?

  4. How would the villagers have reacted to Inès if she’d never worn her veil? If you were in her situation, do you think it would it be easier to move through society with or without it? Explain your answer.

  5. Vianne reflects on how she was “brought up to believe that we should learn to control our own lives, write our own rules, and accept the consequences. . . . I don’t think God cares . . . what we eat; I don’t think He cares who we choose to love” (p. 327). How might that idea be uncomfortable for adherents of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other faith? In what ways has religion been used to control people?

  6. Father Francis says, “We can’t all be like Vianne Rocher, moving from place to place all the time, never belonging anywhere, never taking responsibility” (p. 198). But several times in the novel, Vianne expresses insecurity and concern both about the consequences of her actions and how others regard her. What is the source of this disconnect between how others view Vianne and how she views herself? What are some examples in the novel of her insecurities bubbling to the surface?

  7. Explain the role of confession in the novel. What are some of the confessions made by characters? What are some confessions you’ve made in your own life? Are there times when a confession isn’t the best course of action? Why or why not?

  8. Who is the enemy in this story? Would your answer have been different halfway through the book? Explain your answer.

  9. Inès begs to be left alone. Why do you think the villagers, including Father Francis and Vianne, are so drawn to her? How would the story have been different if they hadn’t interfered?

  10. Vianne says that Father Francis automatically divides people into tribes. She then lists several tribes in addition to religions: “football supporters; rock fans; political parties; believers in extraterrestrials; extremists; moderates;” etc. (p. 137). Consulting her list, what are some other examples you can think of? What is the advantage of joining these tribes? What are the downfalls? To what tribes do you belong?

  11. The children in this novel are among the most vivid characters. With which of the children do you most identify? At one point, Pilou has a very frank discussion with Vianne about Islamic traditions—dietary restrictions, the types of toys the children play with, etc. What would happen if an adult asked the same sorts of questions? What lessons in tolerance can we learn from children?

  12. Vianne’s mother taught her that “food is a universal passport” (p. 94). What are some times in the novel when food opens doors to Vianne? When does food fail to open them? What is the role of food in this book?