The Magic of Joanne Harris

“Magical realism relies upon the presentation of real, imagined or magical elements as if they were real…  [it has] inherent transgressive and subversive qualities [which] has led many postcolonial, feminist and cross-cultural writers to embrace it as a means of expressing their ideas.” Maggie Ann Bowers

Many writers today fall under the umbrella of magical realism. Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Laura Esquivel, Salmon Rushdie and Alice Hoffman are a few well-known magical realist writers. One of my favorite authors in this genre is Joanne Harris whose stories are particularly delicious. Her work appeals to many who love romance, comedy, fantasy, horror, magic, cooking, and stories situated in far off lands. While her stories do not speak to post-colonialism in the traditional sense, her work is subversive in nature because it illustrates the concept of the individual standing up successfully against the dominant power. Such ideas are a potent part of magical realist writing. That hope and optimism is a strong current running through most of Harris’ fantasy work. Not only can her characters change, but they do. Redemption and happiness are available and often achieved by her characters. It is an everyday sort of magic that we all need and want. And while her stories deal with things that are often brought about by the authority – be it secular or religious – or by a rival or even the individual themselves, the characters in her stories are able on their own or as a community to overcome what has been done to them and go on to lead fulfilling lives.

Where does all that strength and optimism come from? Growing up in a family of strong, superstitious French women who believed in the magic of everyday things. Growing up in small villages where everyone is like your family and spending summers running wild on a small coastal island. Like many magical realist authors, Joanne Harris is bicultural, born in England to an English father and a French mother. Her first language was French. She spent all her childhood summers on the island of Noirmoutier just off the western coast of France and the rest of the time in the English countryside. So integral were her summers on that French island that Harris has written on her website that growing up she felt “that Noirmoutier was where I really belonged.” After earning a degree in Modern and Medieval Languages from St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, she was a teacher for fifteen years. She published three novels during that time. The third was Chocolat, the one she is perhaps best known for. Harris has published twenty-two books to date, including three cookbooks, two collections of short stories, and seventeen novels. Her canon, like her short story collection Jigs and Reels, is a mixture of fantasy, horror, mystery and general fiction. Many of her novels and short stories employ magical realism. A couple of devices that she often uses to support that narrative mode are place and cookery. Many of her stories take place in rural France. Magic seems to be more believable when it’s in the country, or a foreign country, to those of us who live near the centers of scientific inquiry. Eating and drinking, with its ability to stimulate, relax, and satisfy people is one of life’s simpler pleasures and something we spend more time thinking about and preparing than we ever do consuming it. And, in the case of author Joanne Harris, writing about it. And I’m not just referring to her cookbooks.

Food has magical properties in Harris’ stories. Look at her titles. Chocolat and Blackberry Wine in which eating chocolate and drinking wine can change your life. The smell of oranges can trigger migraine headaches in Five Quarters of the Orange. In the short story, “Gastronomicon” preparing recipes in an heirloom cookbook can bring good fortune to the family or conjure demons. “Fish” is an aphrodisiac that causes a man to leave his wife on their honeymoon and hook up with the chef who becomes more beautiful and attractive with each bite of food. A special blend Japanese green tea helps a former psychiatric patient have more confidence and be more outgoing in “Tea with the Birds.”

Even in works not dedicated to gastronomy, the everyday acts of preparing food, eating, and drinking are magical. Indeed, Harris imbues the ordinary with magic. She blurs the lines between magical and real as magic is portrayed as ordinary and the ordinary is depicted as being extraordinary. In an interview after the publication of The Girl with no Shadow (published in the UK as The Lollipop Shoes), the sequel to Chocolat, Joanne Harris told a reporter, “You either believe in magic or you don’t. The occult, religion, superstition – they’re part of the same spectrum for me. I don’t distinguish. Strands of belief run through them all.” Magic infuses the novel Chocolat, a story about a mysteriously magical woman (Vianne) and her daughter who lead a nomadic existence, pulled and pushed by the wind and the spirit of her dead mother. They arrive in a small town in France during the Lenten season. The chocolate they sell in their shop, which is imbued with magic, changes people who consume it. Some people become lustier, less shy, more honest, less bitter, more relaxed while everyone gains a little more happiness in their life. Vianne’s chocolate voodoo even brings the travelling folk, who avoid townspeople, to her shop.

In another magical tale involving magical wine, a down and out English writer of second-rate pulp fiction named Jay Mackintosh, drinks from one of six bottles given to him a long time ago by a mystical man. He then buys a farm in France he’s never seen before and moves onto a happier, more meaningful life.  When he opens one of the bottles after so many years have passed, he expects it to have gone bad. But not only does the magic come alive in the bottle, all the remaining bottles wake up as well. “There was something going on in the cellar, after all. He could almost hear it, like the sounds of a distant party. Beneath his feet the bottles were in gleeful ferment. He could hear them whispering to him, singing, calling, capering. Their laughter was infectious, reckless, a call to arms. He felt a burst of raucous anticipation, a knowledge that something was on the way…” (Harris, Blackberry Wine 14).

At the same time, Harris deals with some important issues in her writing which is a significant aspect of magical realism. Chocolat exposes prejudice and shows a feminist way of mitigating the impact of the unkind and unfair treatment. When the Gypsies arrive at Lansquenet in their boats on the Tannes, the townspeople refuse to serve them. When the visitors attempt to order a few beers in a local bar, the proprietor tells them he’s closed even though there are quite a few customers inside. Roux says that the bar is “closed to us” and he is told he is not as dumb as he looks (Harris, Chocolat 95). And, Vianne’s continued association with the Gypsies further compromises her relationship with the people of Lansquenet, especially the priest, who has been trying to ruin her ever since he found out that she does not have a husband. This further illustrates how women are marginalized in a patriarchal society and the use of magical realism to expose this.

Harris also writes realistically and frighteningly about historical events in Five Quarters of the Orange. This is an enjoyable thriller set in rural France during the German occupation where, as an adult, Framboise must decode the secret, coded entries in her mother’s cookbook, in order to understand the tragedy that occurred one night of her youth that required the family to flee in the middle of the night. Magical realism is a good genre to write about such events because you need a good bit of magic to lighten things up and give people a little hope when reading about the horrors and tragedies of war.

Throughout her body of work, Harris weaves the magical in with the ordinary to make the supernatural seem commonplace. She depicts realistic and magical things side by side, depicts the magic as if it was ordinary and reality as if it was extraordinary, and writes about people and things that are themselves magical. Even when her stories are scary, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. It is comforting when good conquers evil. People love stories like that, and Joanne Harris delivers.

Beyond describing how postcolonial nations have been irrevocably changed, beyond explicating the female experience in a male-dominated society, beyond showing a potential path to resistance or revolution in an oppressive situation, magical realism is a delightful narrative mode that offers people something to believe in, whether it be magic, oneself or a group of people you are part of. In our increasingly technological world, we need something to believe in, perhaps more than ever before. We need something to give us hope that we can transcend our biological natures, overcome the limitations of our personality, and prevail against tyranny and oppression.  And Joanne Harris does this really well. In her contemporary folk tales, good conquers evil and many of her characters overcome the stumbling blocks that have been placed in their way. Because the people in her stories find themselves, find love, find happiness, gain some universal truths, we readers believe that we can too. If you don’t believe that good things can happen to you, you probably won’t notice when they do. According to Joanne Harris, sometimes you make your own magic and “sometimes it happens by accident. After years of waiting – for a correct planetary alignment, a chance meeting, a sudden inspiration – the right circumstances sometimes happen of their own accord, slyly, without fanfare, without warning. Layman’s alchemy, Joe would have called it. The magic of everyday things” (Harris, Blackberry Wine 11). The magic of optimism. Or the greatest magic of all, the magic of believing in yourself.

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