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• Saturday, January 30th, 2016

Joanne Michèle Sylvie Harris was born in Barnsley, Yorkshire in 1964 to an English father and a French mother. Both her parents taught modern languages and literature at a local grammar school. Harris was educated at Wakefield Girls’ High School, Barnsley Sixth Form College and St Catharine’s College, Cambridge where she studied modern and medieval languages.

After training as a teacher at Sheffield University, she taught modern languages at Leeds Grammar School, an independent boy’s school in Yorkshire, for fifteen years and at Sheffield University. She was awarded honorary doctorates in literature from the University of Huddersfield and the University of Sheffield and was also made an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge.

Joanne Harris is an acclaimed writer. She has written several books among which some were dedicated to gastronomical pleasure. She has received numerous awards and her books have been translated into several languages and published in many countries. In 2013 she was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and she is a patron of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the international, independent, medical humanitarian organisation.

Joanne Harris lives with her husband in a little wood in Yorkshire and dedicates her time to writing books as a means of living. In an interview she says that she has always written since she was a child.

Harris’s French relatives live in Brittany. Her grandfather had a beach house on an island off southern Brittany which looked just like the island of Le Devin in Coastliners. Coastliners was published in 2002 in English and in 2005 in French.

The narrator of Coastliners is called Madeleine but everybody calls her by her nickname, Mado. She is a Parisian painter specialised in seascapes due to her attachment to her native island. She is always trying to recapture the images that remain in her mind from the past and to appease her longing to return home to les Salants. Les Salants is a small island off Noirmoutier near Le Devin. It’s an imaginery island close to the coast of France. Mado goes back in order to care for her aging father, GrosJean Prasteau, a former boat-builder and a silent, depressed and withdrawn man who is haunted and psychologically blocked by an old guilt concerning the accidental death of his beloved brother. Mado returns with the will to reconcile with him after so many years of estrangement. She wants to start a new relationship with her father in the hope of gaining his approval and love.

After ten years spent with her now deceased mother in Paris, Mado, now a young woman, discovers upon her return home that nothing has changed on the island since her absence. The two rival clans, the Houssins and the Salannais still hold ancestral hatreds against each other. She takes upon herself to improve the life of the poverty-striken Salanais by saving les Salants from the destructive sea, caused in part by natural causes and in part by the Houssins.

The Houssins live at the other end of the island. The powerfully rich local entrepreneur Houssin, Claude Brismand, owns the ferry that transports tourists from the mainland to Le Devin. He erected the costly breakwater in order to shelter la Houssinière from sea erosion and to control the lucrative tourism through the island’s only beach, thus allowing the tides to flood Les Salants and leave the fatalist as well as superstitious Salanais to fight for their own survival.

Mado sets a secret plan to help the fishing community in her village with the help of the young attractive, enigmatic Irishman, Richard Flynn, by building a rudimentary barrier with sand bags and old tyres to redirect the tides away from Les Salants. Mado has in mind to make Les Salants a touristic, prosperous holiday resort and fight the ruthless manipulator and machiavellian Claude Brismand, who has a hidden, evil plan to dispossess the land and properties of the poor Salanais and own Les Salants himself.

Richard Flynn is an outsider who has been accepted by the Salanais as one of them and who everybody in the village calls, Rouget, because of his red hair. He presents himself to Mado “with an ironic flourish” as a “philosopher, builder, sculptor, welder, fisherman, handyman, weatherman…”

The story of Coastliners underlines how small villages are forgotten by bigger communities and have to fight for themselves and unite in times of adversity. To achieve their goal, they were missing the help of an energetic tenacious leader, like the persuasive Mado. She comes to their rescue and never loses hope despite hardships to carry her people through tough times. She endeavours to pull the villagers out of their lethargy, passiveness, in-grained superstitious and ancient rituals toward their patron, St. Marine-de-la-mer. One of their beliefs is that if you kiss the feet of St. Marine-de-la-mer and spit three times, something that you have lost will come back to you. Their maxim is:“everything returns”.

The story also portrays the rivalries, jealousy and betrayal between Mado and her older married sister, Adrienne, as well as the great deceit when Mado by chance discovers the secret relationship between Flynn and Brismand who were plotting against her father’s interests on one side and her sister and her husband Marin Brismand, the nephew and heir of the same Claude Brismand, on the other side. In her novel the author emphasizes how the yearning for material possessions prevails over family ties, love and values.

Coastliners is the battle of good versus evil. The story is slow paced but the plot picks up and mysteries and twists are revealed at the end of the novel. Despite the numerous characters and their complicated relationships, the story is uncomplicated. The author describes charmingly and with her flowing prose an accurate and lively portrayal of the islanders who are still living as in the old days, oblivious to the passage of time, modern life and what’s happening in the world. Reading Coastliners is like embarking on a voyage out of time.

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