This book is a must for all Joanne Harris fans. It is better than 'Blackberry Wine', better even than 'Chocolat'.
It will also come as a surprise to 'Chocolat' fans, who, like me, might open it up expecting another sugary-sweet charming village comedy. The novel begins in a similar manner, with Framboise, now an elderly woman, settling into a French village, her old hometown. But throughout the text are scattered seeds of unease and doubt, and as the narrative slowly unravels, the reader becomes aware that she is hiding her identity and an ugly past.
The story very cleverly intercuts between Framboise as an elderly lady, around 60, and as a child of 9 in wartime France. It is the childhood memories which become the most intriguing - Harris brilliantly captures the difficulties of childhood - 'the cruelty of childhood' - and the poignant way her relationship with her mother disintegrates into hate and destruction. As a contrast to this is a love-crush she develops on a German soldier, which becomes incredibly touching. It was a stroke of genius that Harris explores this with a heroine who is only 9 - caught awkwardly between childhood and adolsecense, uncertain of what her emotions are, unable to label her feelings as love, or to know whether she loves him as a man, a father-figure, a friend, an idol, or a mixture of them all.
I won't say anymore or it will spoil the book and the surprises it throws at you, but the narrative slowly sucks you (rather like the victims claimed by old Mother in the river) into deeper, darker and muddier waters, resulting in violence, death and tragedy. Even the redemptive ending cannot really take away the bitter taste in your mouth at the end...but nevertheless, a brilliant book.