I have previously extolled the virtues of Joanne Harris, so no one should be surprised that I picked up two more of her books: Holy Fools and Coastliners. I had Powell’s credit, so I went to ‘Harris’ on the shelf and grabbed the cheapest two that I hadn’t already read. I did not realize that they were actually linked to each other – and I even read them in the proper order!
Holy Fools was my favorite of the two. Set in the 17th century in a French nunnery on a secluded island, it examines love, evil, miracles, organized religion (the institution vs. the belief system) and being true to yourself. This story is told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of Juliette, a gypsy & itinerant player who hides away in a nunnery with her young daughter after a brush with the law. Regardless of whether you like her or agree with her, Juliette is a vivid and real character that is hard to stop reading about.
The world as I see it is one where there are few easy answers, and knowing yourself and being true to that self offer the only chance of retaining one’s sanity and still being happy. Juliette loves the wrong man, makes poor decisions and doesn’t always do the right thing – but loves with her whole heart, and cares for all of the people she loves to the very best of her not-inconsiderable abilities. When put in an impossible situation, she strays pretty far outside the box to protect her friends and her daughter, and even punish the bad guys a little. The ending is left up to the reader, no easy answers and no plot tied up in a neat package – another preference of mine. No one’s story has a precise beginning or ending, and I prefer fiction that knows how to end a book without a metaphorical ‘they lived happily ever after.’ This one didn’t have the emphasis on food that her other books had (at least, the ones I’ve read), but the mood is powerfully rendered and hard to leave behind.
Coastliners might have been a fine book if I hadn’t been comparing it to Harris’s other work. It certainly is not a bad book, by any stretch. Good characters, setting was unique, interesting and well-written, plot was effective. I think what was missing – for me, at least – was a powerful theme. All of Harris’s other books have a guiding focus that uses every plot twist, character flaw and detail of setting to support her message. In contrast, Coastliners read more like a great summer read without too much depth to it. Of course, in comparison to a true ‘summer read’ kind of book (I’m thinking of something like Evanovich or Shopaholic-type reads) this one is plenty deep. Mado is a young woman returning to the island she called home as a child after her mother dies. Her reclusive father still lives there, and she’s soon caught up in the drama of the haves vs. the have-nots on the island. My favorite thing about the book? Harris has two nuns that were inspired by Charles de Lint’s Crow Girls! I love it when the strange pieces of my life intersect.
I am currently revisiting my obsession with The Wheel of Time, after reading the latest book. Suddenly, not spending so much time on the computer…
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