Thanks to the Oscar-nominated film of her novel Chocolat, Joanne Harris is now irrevocably linked to Johnny Depp – surely a pleasing thing for any lass. That book spun the tale of single mother opening a chocolate shop in a tiny French village and inviting the wrath of the ascetic curé of the local parish. However, an itinerant musician proved a distraction from her growing unpopularity . . .
With that, readers of Harris’ new book Blue Eyed Boy are advised to let go any romantic notion of what kind of story they might expect to find. She makes a firm departure from the best-known of her previous 10 novels (plus two cookbooks and a short-story collection) with this dark story of a 42-year-old hospital porter who lives with his mother in a Yorkshire village and spends much of his time writing online fiction (‘fics’) for a community of fans, who post comments on his work.
The fics are in the murder-fantasy genre, and it doesn’t take long for the reader to start wondering whether blueeyedboy, the moniker under which he posts, is inventing the tales he tells or simply recording his autobiography in neatly-typed passages.
Blue Eyed Boy is saturated with colour, because its protagonist has synaesthesia, defined in the novel as “a rare condition where two – or sometimes more – of the five ‘normal’ senses are apparently fused together. A synaesthete may experience any or all of the following: shape as taste, touch as scent, sound or taste as colour.”
In blueeyedboy’s case, he has olfactory-gustatory synaesthesia and experiences people and places as colours, smells and tastes. The intensity of sensation provokes debilitating headaches and as he withdraws further into his fantasy ‘fics’, the people around him develop a bad habit of dying in haste.
Into the mix comes another online storyteller, Albertine, and the complex web woven by blueeyedboy starts to unravel.
Harris is clearly interested in exploring the theme of the internet’s dark side – while it opens up the world and enables people to connect with like-minded others, it also gives the more nefarious among us a limitless avenue to pursue perverse ends. The role of the web in modern life is being explored with increasing frequency by crime writers in particular (see Val McDermid’s Fever of the Bone for an excellent recent example), and Harris makes smart use of this everyday tool as a literary device to expose a disintegrating mind.
A wonderful thing about books as an art form is that, unless you have read a work by a given author before, it’s rare to have many preconceived notions. You can approach a book fresh, wide-eyed and hopeful of entertainment and new nuggets of knowledge.
However, it can enhance one’s enjoyment to know something about the person who produced this wee object you’ve just been ravishing, though it’s rare to see anything more titillating in the author blurb than where they live and what they’ve already published.
In the case of Joanne Harris, hers reveals her to be a woman with wit and no lack of curiosity: “Her hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as: “mooching, lounging, strutting, strumming, priest-baiting and quiet subversion of the system”, although she also enjoys obfuscation, sleaze, rebellion, witchcraft, armed robbery, tea and biscuits. She is not above bribery and would not necessarily refuse an offer involving exotic travel, champagne or yellow diamonds from Graff. She plays bass guitar in a band first formed when she was 16, is currently studying Old Norse and lives with her husband Kevin and her daughter Anouchka, about 15 miles from the place she was born.”
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones