An Iron Fist In A Chocolate Glove
Not long ago, Joanne Harris’s earliest novel that came to my attention, back in the days when I was writing for Time Out, was re-issued. Until I re-read it, I’d forgotten how much it had changed my view of her work. Here’s part of what I wrote for that re-issue;
I sometimes think that people who have never read a Joanne Harris novel get the wrong idea about her. In these days of lazy labels they see ‘French’ and ‘food’ and assume she probably written the novelistic equivalents of ‘A Year In Provence’. Perhaps because she was born in her grandparents’ sweetshop, they think her work must also be sugar-coated. They couldn’t be more wrong. A passion for the dark fantastic runs through Joanne’s entire output, sometimes explicitly, sometimes in more subtle gradation. Often her work is surprisingly bleak and confrontational, even subversive.
Her first novel, ‘The Evil Seed’, was a full-throttle, multi-generational gothic vampire novel with gore running from the pages. Her second, ‘Sleep, Pale Sister’, was subtler and more disturbing, as a Victorian artist grooms and sedates his young ward, who is forced into a dark underworld of prostitution and death in order to exact her revenge.
It came as no surprise to discover that her third novel was to be a virtual celebration of paganism and witchcraft, as a sensuous heroine went head-to-head against a joyless priest during Lent. The surprise was that ‘Chocolat’ found its audience less among fantasy fans than mainstream readers, many of whom I suspect did not realise that they were being presented with a very positive view of the world under old gods. The book had a cleverly prettified cover and sold over a million copies in the UK alone, going on to become an Oscar-nominated film, but not before the villainous priest was ousted to give more screen-time to Johnny Depp’s sexy gypsy. Hollywood could not afford to ruffle the feathers of the religious right by having a villainous priest.
Partly encouraged by her publisher, and partly because her writing is suffused with the power of the senses (she has a form of synaesthesia, by which she experiences colours as smells) Joanne completed a trilogy of novels that seemingly appeared to consolidate her reputation as the Queen of Gallic sensuality. What I think she was actually doing was creating a form of magical realism that incorporated elements of horror and pleasure to highlight questions of identity and female empowerment.
Now, this all sounds very grand and worthy, but her writing is not; it’s intelligent but accessible, emotional but unsentimental, and frequently darker than you’d expect. Joanne has rock-chick blood in her pen, and when it bounces up to the surface it proves all the more shocking for having lulled you into a false sense of security.
I first met Joanne through her second novel, which I reviewed for Time Out. We stayed friends across the years, writing constantly to each other (we share a two-foot stack of scurrilous correspondence that I must re-read one day). Now she’s my neighbour, so the arguments about writers and writing often take place on the street corner where we pass on our way to the shops. We started by discussing horror and fantasy, and have always returned to these genres. How appropriate it is, then, to welcome this multi-national award-winning writer to her spiritual home, among those who are the most ready to follow her grand leaps of imagination.
‘Sleep, Pale Sister’ is a Gothic work of immense power but it is certainly not a parody or a satire of the Victorian novel. To my mind, here’s the difference. A writer either sets out to ‘do’ a Victorian novel, which results in a parody, or they have a tale to tell which could have no other possible setting. ‘Sleep, Pale Sister’ could not be placed anywhere else, or at any other time. Its milieu, the world of Pre-Raphaelite artists and patrons, could only be London in the late 19th century. It was a period of cloying sentiment and artistic arrogance; on the one hand, the brilliant but overreaching Oscar Wilde preaches an aesthetical stance in all things while publically purchasing the services of rent boys. On the other, we have Ruskin and Whistler going to court over the aesthetics of a painting about a firework, while the rest of the art world reverts to a medieval neverland of narrative, decorative artworks featuring embroidery-laden pin-up girls. Hypocrisy, much?
What’s missing from this heady brew is the opinions of the women; the dutiful wives who kept their silence and the innocent young girls who modelled nude and were covertly groomed. And here’s where Joanne particularly excels, in capturing, with sympathy and power, what a girl might feel about the awful pressure under which she is being placed. For you could say that ‘Sleep, Pale Sister’ is partly about paedophile grooming. It’s the story of Henry Chester, a domineering sentimental artist with an eye for the perfect model. Effie, his choice, is nine years old, and by the time she is ripe for plucking, she has been infantilised and sedated by her father-figure husband, one of the most sinister and disturbing characters in modern fiction.
The narrative hook here is this; what will it take for Effie to awaken and free herself from her doll-like dream of an existence? I was reminded of Marghanita Laski’s ‘The Victorian Chaise Longue’, the only novel I’d read that captures the terrible loneliness any woman faced if she tried to break free of the era’s condescending patriarchy.
But now the author plays a masterstroke, introducing the man who initially appears to be Effie’s saviour, for rather than becoming a tale of female empowerment and self-realisation, the novel twists and darkens into a far more penumbral territory of cruelty, prostitution, deception and bleak retribution.
When you consider that Joanne wrote this at the time of her daughter’s birth, it’s interesting to see how she has explored other aspects of daughters and parents through her books, notably in ‘Chocolat’, so that she seems to have an almost supernatural precognition of their different mental states.
Joanne says she drew on ‘The Woman In White’ and ‘The Other Victorians’ to write the book, but there’s another volume, ‘The Worm In The Bud’, which explores the quite horrific world of guilt, disease and occluded Victorian sexuality which she could easily have studied for gruesome details. The novel also contains a haunting, but even so, it took some chutzpah on the publishers’ behalf to market this, her second book, as ‘horror’. I reviewed it for Time Out at the time of its initial publication, in a monthly literary column (back when popular magazines were still intelligent) and felt like pushing copies into readers’ hands. I still do. Like Dudley Moore’s declaration that a good painting is one whose eyes follow you around the room, this is a tale that will creep under your covers at night and keep you awake until dawn’s first glimmer.