Black Swan, 2000
Like many readers, I often make my purchase decisions based on a quick perusal of a book’s first paragraphs. Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris hooked me with the very first sentence:
Everyone knows that. Look around you. Ask the oracle at the street corner; the uninvited guest at the wedding; the holy fool. It talks. It ventriloquizes. It has a million voices. It unleashes the tongue, teasing out secrets you never meant to tell, secrets you never even knew.
How could I not read further, as soon as it became clear that the narrator of this lush fantasy novel is a bottle of wine? A Fleurie 1962, to be exact, bottled in the same year as the novel’s protagonist, thirty seven year old Jay Mackintosh. As the novel proceeds, you tend to forget the wine is speaking, but every now and then the sharing of a special bottle unleashes some particular magic and you remember.
In his twenties, Jay wrote one prize winning novel, based on three golden summers in his teens spent under the tutelage of “Jackapple” Joe Cox. A coal miner retired after losing several fingers, Joe lived in a run-down district by the rail line, cultivating his remarkable garden, telling tall tales, instructing, entertaining, challenging and infuriating his young apprentice. Jay visited during the summers to escape the wreckage of his parents’ marriage, and Joe filled some need in him that no one else could.
The literary world lavished its praise on that first novel, but Jay has never managed to write another. He drifts through life, nagged by his manipulative girlfriend Kerry, trying without success to write something “serious”. Jay makes a decent living penning lurid scifi stories under a pseudonym, but the inspiration that fueled his first creation has died. That is, until one night when he opens one of six ancient bottles of Joe’s fruit wine and something wild and true rekindles in his soul.
With totally uncharacteristic decisiveness, he purchases a crumbling farmhouse and vineyard in rural France—because this was Joe’s dream—and rushes off to take possession. Thus he becomes part of the community, and the story, of the village of Lansquenet, and the variant inhabitants become part of his own. In particular, his mysterious neighbor Marise D’Api teases and haunts his imagination. Everyone in town tells different tales about the reclusive widow and her deaf daughter.
The book flips back and forth between Jay’s summers with Joe and his present in France. Gradually, Ms. Harris unfolds the truth of Jay’s relationship with Joe, the ache of betrayal Jay still feels more than two decades later. Still, with every page, the author encourages us to question what is “truth”. Is there such a thing, or are there only a variety of stories?
I adored Blackberry Wine, even more than Ms. Harris’ famous Chocolat, for which this book forms a loose sequel. The writing is gorgeous, full of vivid sense impressions. The characters jump out from the page, quirky and distinctive. Most of all, I cherished the sense of everyday magic with which the author infuses the story. Are Joe’s special wines powerful potions that bring dreams to life? Or do they do no more than summon memory and coax the spirit toward something new?