It’s been about five years since Vianne Rocher and her daughter Anouk left the tiny village in which they lived in the book Chocolat. For the past four years, they’ve been settled in a small neighborhood in Paris. They’ve changed their names, and Vianne has toned down all aspects of herself: no more red clothes and shoes, no more vibrant conversation, no more small spells and charms to ward off evil and welcome good spirits. And no more chocolate.
That is, not her own. She runs a store that sells chocolate bought from a vendor. The woman who owns the store is elderly and does not participate in the business anymore. But when she dies, Vianne continues buying pre-made chocolate and toning herself down. Blending in. Half-heartedly dating the building’s owner. Avoiding the attention of the wind, for should the wind find her, she will have to move her family again. And Vianne is done moving. She wants a stable home for Anouk, who is now eleven, and her second daughter, Rosette, now four.
The original conflict in The Girl With No Shadow by Joanne Harris derives from Vianne and Anouk. Anouk remembers her vibrant, magical mother in the small French village in Chocolat, so why is Vianne so dark and dull now? Anouk doesn’t understand the dangers of being vagrants who must move any time the wind calls to them. The more Anouk distances herself from her mother, who has traded her shadow for contentment — implying a person without a shadow ins’t really a person — the easier it is for Anouk to be led astray by newcomer Zozie, a witch who fearlessly and openly uses magic, consequences be damned. And then Zozie convinces Vianne to turn this chocolate shop into a true chocolaterie and hire Zozie to work the counter. Will the wind find Vianne if she stands out again because she’s happy? I’m glad the chocolaterie came back because Harris’s food descriptions are magnificent:
It’s such a delight to choose a box, to linger over the shape — will it be heart shaped, round, or square? To select the chocolates with care; to see them nestled between the folds of crunchy mulberry-colored paper; to smell the mingled perfumes of cream, caramel, vanilla, and dark rum; to choose a ribbon; to pick out a wrapping; to add flowers of paper hearts; to hear the silky whisssh of rice paper against the lid —
While Vianne’s magic is domestic (scrying in chocolate, guessing people’s favorite confections), Zozie learned how to draw spells for Mexican gods in the air and on objects. Zozie uses her spells to manipulate people, occasionally for good, but mostly to get away with petty thievery, petty revenge, and manipulation. Given that there is a beckoning wind and witchy spells, Harris’s chocolate books would be considered magical realism. It’s done well, never letting the magic dominate the realism, which is as it should be. As the novel progresses, readers see that Zozie is more dangerous than we first thought. She’s like Vianne: a traveler who changes names frequently. But is Zozie simply the opposite side of Vianne’s coin, or is she something different entirely?
An interesting aspect of The Girl With No Shadow is that despite having largely the same cast as Chocolat, the tone is dissimilar. The characters are dark, the magic is dark, the setting is dreary. There’s none of the whimsy of the first novel. My book club members all mentioned missing the lightheartedness of the first novel, but on the other hand, there’s more tension in the second book. Is Anouk in danger? Will Vianne Rocher become herself again? Is it possible for the little family to lead bold lives, or should Vianne marry the landlord boyfriend have a “safe” life? What does Zozie want from the Rochers? There were so many questions all up in the air that you’re always wondering what happens next. All these clues that may nor may not mean anything is a big part of the fun of reading this novel. Everything is small and inconspicuous and there if you want it.
If you enjoy puzzles and mysteries, you’ll like The Girl With No Shadow. Harris spins out backstories slowly across most of the novel, so you put things together slowly and then they creep up on you. She used the same technique in Chocolat, teasing out what life was like when Vianne was a girl traveling with her mother and surprising readers in the end. In this second novel, there are repeated references to a place Vianne and her children lived sometime in the year after she left the French village, and readers are left wondering what happened there. What is “the Accident”? How did it change Vianne’s family?
The Girl With No Shadow starts on October 31st and ends on December 25th. The chapters are each dated, but because there are three narrators (Vianne, Anouk, Zozie), sometimes multiple chapters are from the same day. That did make this second novel feel slower than Chocolat, which is about half the length, and I wish Harris had moved along a little faster. It felt like Zozie was in the Rocher family’s lives for year, but it had only been weeks. Still, Harris’s second installment is highly recommended.