I discovered Joanne Harris through Blackberry Wine; a quirky, light-hearted story narrated by a bottle of wine, depicting beautiful and mysterious rural life in France. It was filled with comical anecdotes and left you feeling warm and filled with fermented grapes. Harris is a phenomenal story-teller, and paints the most intricate pictures in your mind, swiftly marking her as a new favourite. So when I picked up Five Quarters of the Orange I expected more of the same – idyllic countryside and slightly odd-ball neighbours. I don’t think I could have been more wrong about this book; not in terms of its quality, but its content. It is indeed set it rural France, but not with the romantic holiday setting as I’d previously read – instead, it depicts intrigue, conspiracy, deceit, and violence, revealing a darkness I had not expected.
Five Quarters of the Orange is the story of Framboise Dartigen, recollecting her childhood with an erratic mother, image-obsessed sister Reine-Claude, and know-it-all brother Cassis. At the cusp of the Second World War, when the threat of German invasion was prominent in Paris but not in the minds of those in Les Laveuses, the children befriend people they should best leave alone, and what transpires is an unravelling of their lives. Now an old woman returned to her childhood home under a new name and the guise of a crêperie, Framboise tries to remember her past whilst forever running away from her identity.
What Harris is able to do is encompass you in the world between the pages, so much so that you feel as though you can smell the bread, feel the rush of the murky Loire beneath your feet, taste the oranges that haunt Mirabelle so much. That is the true craft of this book; between the pages and the words, much like the album Framboise has of her mother’s, is the real thread of the tale, and the complexities within the people themselves. Amidst the fields and rustic dirt roads, flitting between the 1940s and present day, there lives a lie that darkens each corner, revealing horrific acts and concealed crimes, drawing you in deeper, further from the banks of safety.
This is a book to contend with – not to be read fleetingly, a page here and there, but one to hold on to, to disappear through, to forget time in. Perhaps you can tell that I’m being somewhat cagey, keen not to reveal too much or ruin the twists and meanders. As when fishing for that elusive, mythical pike, it takes patience, understanding, respect, and above all, deception.