War is hell, as we all know, but the last word on that still hasn't been said. Now Joanne Harris gives us a book that exposes the ugliness of war from the viewpoint of three neglected children living in a German-occupied French village during World War II. In Five Quarters of the Orange, narrator Framboise Dartigen unfolds a chilling tale in which she and her two siblings find themselves collaborating with Nazis, trading secrets about their neighbors for chocolate and comic books. The great strength of Five Quarters of the Orange is Harris' unflinching honesty about childhood its capacity for treachery and cruelty. Graphic images of Framboise's war against the life of the nearby river underline this theme. After a village girl is bitten and killed by a venomous snake, Framboise nets a dozen snakes, crushes their skulls and leaves them to rot on the riverbanks.
At the heart of the novel, as in the author's earlier work, Chocolat is a complicated relationship between mother and daughter. Framboise's mother Mirabelle mistakenly applies the same techniques to child rearing that she applies to growing fruit trees: prune them severely, and they will flower. She discovers too late that children don't respond well to constant scolding and deprivation. Mirabelle is also plagued by olfactory hallucinations. Prior to her terrible migraines, she thinks she smells oranges. The scenes in which Framboise takes revenge on her mother by planting a cut-up orange near the stove so that the scent fills the house are among the best in the book. Harris reveals her true genius in these episodes of nine-year-old vindictiveness.
Five Quarters of the Orange isn't just another war novel. It's also a mystery. Why does Framboise disguise her identity when she returns to her childhood village after an absence of 50 years? A scandal hangs over her head from that earlier time, a scandal so flagrant she is sure she will never be accepted back into her community if the people there know exactly who she is. This unknown scandal, gradually revealed to the reader through flashbacks, provides most of the novel's suspense.
To dwell only on the horrors of Five Quarters of the Orange would be to do the book an injustice. Though Harris' genius shines most truly in her portrayal of the ways in which war compromises even the innocent, this book is also rich in charm and whimsy the same kind of graceful good humor that made the author's previous book Chocolat such a big hit. Scenes of the grotesque give way to moments of gentle slapstick. People who are tired of conventional treatments of the elderly in literature will especially enjoy the episode in which the elderly Framboise and her aging neighbor get the better of a 20-something hoodlum terrorizing Framboise's creperie. Their shared triumph sparks an autumnal romance that cannot fail to delight the most cynical readers. Even for someone with skeletons in her closet like Framboise, it's never too late to make a clean breast of things, never too late to fall in love.
Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.