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The reasons I am reviewing these two titles together is firstly because I read them on the other last summer, but also because they both have to do with memories.  It was actually a coincidence.  I was reading Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange when I was offered Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls and I started it straight after finishing the first one ( a rare thing; often books tend to gather a bit of dust on my shelves before I start reading them).

In the past, I have read Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris and really loved it.  During one of my visits to my bookstore, I saw a few of her books on the shelves and decided to pick up Five Quarters of the Orange because it seemed to have the same feel to it.  I was not disappointed. 

I usually like books that are written by foreign people in a French setting.  I think it might be because they represent my country of origin with a much more positive point of view than I would have.  I thus get to see what is nice about France, whereas when I talk about it, I tend to describe it negatively.  Five Quarters of the Orange is set in a village near Angers, not very far from where I used to live for the most part of my life and those references to the banks of the Loire are very familiar to me.

The story is that of Framboise who settles back in the village where she grew up after living it a long time ago for a reason unknown to us.  The fact that she does not want the inhabitants to know who she is increases the mystery surrounding her departure years ago.  The narrative, then, alternates between the present and her troubles with her nephew, her memories as a child, particularly of that summer when the Germans were in town, and the recipe scrapbook she inherited from her mother, which also contains diary entries.  There are thus two plots running in parallel, which are more than enough to keep the reader alert and interested.  As Framboise remembers the past, she also manages to decipher her mother’s scrapbook thus discovering secrets hidden from her.

This is how the novel starts:

“When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngest, her album and a two-litre jar containing a single black Périgord truffle, large as a tennis ball and suspended in sunflower oil, which, when uncorked, still releases the rich dank perfume of the forest floor.  A fairly unequal distribution of riches, but then Mother was a force of nature, bestowing her favours as she pleased, leaving no insight as to the workings of her peculiar logic.

And as Cassis always said, I was the favourite.”

I love Harris’s writing.  I find it warm and generous, if that makes any sense.  I guess this has a lot to do with the fact that she talks much about food and drink, but, although this could get tiring for someone who is not particularly a foodie, it does not.  The food is just a background, something that simply is.  The story itself is gripping and I could not help to stay up until all hours to get to know a little bit more.  Of course, the mystery around Framboise’s childhood and her mother keeps the reader alert, but there is more to it.  It is also about all those memories, some happy, others not, which are recreated for our pleasure and how Harris successfully manages to convey an atmosphere.  It is a dark tale that plunges us in the life of a child with a troubled childhood and ambiguous relationship with her mother, but the narrative is so vivid and colourful that it did not feel depressing.

Christina, at The Blue Bookcase, mentions in her recent review that she was annoyed by the “fruity” characters’ names.  I must admit that it is something that also bothered me, but not sufficiently to shadow my enjoyment of this novel.

I was very surprised (and pleased) when I then started The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe to discover another story of memories and family secrets.  I did not know anything about this book except that the person who offered it to me loved it.

After her aunt Rosamond’s death, Gill has to look for Imogen, a stranger she has met only once, who is the main inheritor of Rosamond’s wealth, but also of a collection of photos and tapes.  Failure to find Imogen leads Gill and her daughters to listen to the tapes.  On them are recorded the memories a set of twenty photos of Rosamond’s choice evoke to her.  With each photo we get to discover a bit more of Rosamond’s past, but also the story of Imogen and who she was.

The set up is quite simple, but Rosamond’s narrative is a bit more complex, dealing with the tragedy her family has experienced from one generation to the next, her relationship with her cousin Beatrix, her love affair with Ruth and finally the impact the little Imogen had on her life.  Little by little, we discover the family secrets and the past of those two women connected in some strange way.  Rosamond’s story is tragic and touching and, despite the many descriptions, which can become a bit tedious, keeps you going.  The narrative alternates between the frame narrative and Rosamond’s story, which increases our desire to know more.

However, this frame narrative brought me some disappointment.  It did not bother me until the end, when Gill starts making connections between an incident that happened to her and the death of Imogen.  She then goes on about considerations on the meaning behind coincidences.  This is only a short passage, but this is how the book ends.  Why?  This was a nice story, but the ending really annoyed me.  It is as if it came from a desire to tie everything up.  This detail excepted, I enjoyed reading this novel.  It seems that I like discovering family secrets, maybe because each family has its own secrets and we are not always able to unveil the ones of our own family…

Talking about coincidences, how strange is it that a month after I came back from Canada I read two novels in which, unknowingly to me, some of their characters live in Canada?  Coincidence?  Hidden meaning?  It definitely made me smile!