I really love Joanne Harris's work. I've read three of her books now, one of them multiple times. I count Chocolat as one of my favorite all time reads and for a while was rereading it nearly every year, and Gentlemen and Players was simply brilliant in my opinion. I know her style doesn't appeal to everyone, and she can be seen as uneven in her execution by those who do read her, but I thoroughly enjoyed Coastliners, which I couldn't put down last weekend and found myself racing to the end yet was sad to turn that last page. For me it was a perfect summer read.
No doubt the setting, a small island off the coast of France, had a lot to do with the appeal of this story for me. The place descriptions were so evocative I almost felt like I was there, too. The island became almost a character in itself. Of the books I've read Gentlemen and Players is a bit of an anomaly, but her books with French settings have a magical quality to them that I find hard to resist. They seem to take place in small, tight knit communities where life has become monotonous and rather drab with people stuck in their everyday routines until someone, a stranger usually, comes along to shake things up. Not surprising in these small villages religion plays a role in the lives of the people, yet always there are superstitious beliefs that underpin how they think and interact with each other.
It's as though time stands still on the small island of Le Devin. Generations of islanders follow in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers relying on fishing to make their living, following the rhythm of the sea and hoping Sainte-Marine-de-la-Mer, the island's patron saint, will smile kindly on them and bring prosperity. Unfortunately luck seems to be in short supply for those living in the village of Les Salants.
After living for a decade in Paris, Madeleine (Mado) Prasteau arrives back in her native village during the saint's festival. Mado left with her mother who has since died, and she is now estranged from her father. GrosJean Prasteau receives a shock when he spots her in the crowd, dropping the statue of the saint into the sea, a sign of how life in the village has been since Mado's departure. Les Salants seems a sad shadow of its sister village, La Houssinière, which boasts a thriving tourist trade and beautiful, pristine beaches. The coastline along Les Salants has eroded and is slowly disappearing, land is flooded, the fishing is bad and morale is worse. The Salannais are bitter and envious of their more prosperous neighbors and fighting amongst themselves over long forgotten grievances.
Mado's reappearance after so many years is viewed with mistrust and derision. She has always felt an affinity with her father and his love of the island, but it was obvious as she was growing up that he would have preferred boys and not the two daughters he ended up with. Adrienne married a Houssin boy and couldn't wait to leave home, but Mado is pleased to be back and ready to make amends with her father. GrosJean remains aloof, however, turned in on himself and harboring secret tragedies that have drained him of all his words.
Mado is passionate and headstrong, sweeping in and ready to turn the tides, quite literally, and the fortunes of the Salannais. But the villagers are so mired in their defeatist attitudes no one will listen to her. Help comes from an unlikely corner--from the mysterious stranger, a stranger who is more readily accepted on the island than Mado after her long absence. Flynn, an outsider and drifter, has somehow made his way to Le Devin from England and gets caught up in Mado's plotting. Together, along with the help of Sainte Marine, they work a little magic in the lives of the villagers of Les Salants who begin to believe that maybe their tiny world can be changed for the better once and for all.
Harris knows how to create wonderfully enchanting worlds even if the island of Le Devin was filled with discord and animosity at the start. The sea is tumultuous and unpredictable and it mirrors the lives and emotions of the island's inhabitants who must reinvent their world just as the tides refashion the island's coastline. And the beauty of the story is how they undertake the solution to their problems, which include a few twist and turns and surprises. Coastliners is a story of love and rivalry, family ties, reconciliations, and perhaps most of all of self-discovery. And if you want to imagine the swish of the incoming tide and the feel of sand between your toes and a warm, gentle breeze on your face Harris manages that pretty well, too. I already planned on reading more of Joanne Harris's work, but this just makes me want to pick up another novel sooner than later.