Thursday, 13 May 2010

Blackberry Wine

by Joanne Harris.

This not the sort of book I normally read, but I enjoyed it. It's the first of the three books I picked up in my Birthday Bookshop Book Bonanza Auction. It cost me in the region of 8 sweets. My bids were spurred on by Helen's promise that the book was narrated by a bottle of wine.

Needless to say, I liked that wine bottle narration. I also liked how it stayed in the background for most of the book. It would stay hidden for chapter after chapter, leaving the book essentially in the third person, then suddenly pop up again and say 'Hi. I'm a bottle of wine. Remember me?'

And there were lots of other things I liked. A lot came down to the two worlds -- distinct, distant, but similar -- that the book inhabits. They are thickly coated in warm detail and expertise. Once again I am reminded of my own ignorance by the depth of an author's knowledge of the world they talk about, and by my need (stubbornly ignored) for a dictionary. There were a number of terms used as if they were common knowledge, which I had to guess at, or just gloss past.

I'm starting to think that this hint of obfuscation is intended as a world-reifying tool. After all, if a guy told me he was a physicist, and decided to tell me about his work in depth, I'd be pretty suspicious if he talked about 'those things, like an atom but, um, smaller', and 'that force, you know, that stops us all floating away. Downward-Pull, I think'. No physicist are you, I would think. You're fictional.

But it's not just the believability of the world that I liked. Blackberry Wine is set in two times; the summers of 1975-77, and the summer of 1999. It hops to and fro between these two, in short bursts (at least, the bursts are short early on.) Something about that chopping and changing, and the contrasting nature of the two times, kept me turning the pages, even when I needed a cup of tea. And tea is pretty important.
Maybe it's giving people a break from each world that lets them appreciate them. A case of triggering: 'Oh, I liked that world. I hope we go back there'. How often does a reader acknowledge to themselves the charm of the world they are engrossed in? Not often, I reckon. But it can happen every chapter, if the world switches each time.
There's a skill in keeping both worlds interesting -- they're competing, now. Make one too charming, and the other will by comparatively weak. But competition can be good. Get it right, and you can paper over a number of problems.

Harris does this. I think there's a flaw in Blackberry Wine, and the two worlds are responsible for it, as well as for covering it up. The second half of the novel drags. The past narrative doesn't keep up, and didn't build up or pay off in the way I expected, or even at all. It loses its way.
Maybe because it covers three summers, it is incohesive. There is no overall trend of movement, or tension, that forms an interesting buttress to the main arc.

This is less a criticism of that flaw, though, than a point about the effectiveness of the healing charm of alternating stories. I kept reading through more than one sticky patch, not out of book-duty, but to get to the next bit from the 70s.

Switching worlds is not a shortcut: it has to be done well. In this case, it is done well enough to carry the novel, though it doesn't elevate it into something great. For an example of excellence, Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey is an example of three (I think; long time ago) alternating worlds, and is nearly flawless. For a failed attempt, Sunnyside by Glen David Gold did not cash in on its huge promise, perhaps by trying to juggle too many. No one world justified itself, in the end.

An interesting question that I don't have the answer for is this: why, considering I ended up enjoying this novel, would I have not picked it up from the bookshelf? Is it a gender thing?
And why, now I have enjoyed it, will I not bother looking for any more by Joanne Harris?

I might post in the near future about the different approaches to acquiring books. Serendipity vs. The List, or something.


  1. When in doubt. It's gender issues. From what I can get from the little bit of the cover and the basic outline, I can tell it doesn't seem very masculine. Unless the wine bottle explodes.

  2. I have found that a lot of times when I've been recommended a book by someone, I may enjoy that book, but rarely do I ever seek out the author for another go. I'd like to come up with some grand answer, but it probably comes down to snobbery of some sort.

    I also don't trust women.