There’s a famous quote, “Variety is the spice of life”. It originates from a poem written in 1785 by William Cowper, called “The Task”. The full quote reads, “Variety is the spice of life, that gives it all its flavor”. That’s why, even though I am an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy novels, I sometimes step out of my comfort zone to try something else. Like when I tried out PlayCroco Online Casino that one time. Anyway, I ended up picking out three books to read recently: “The Warlord of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs, “Skylark DuQuesne”, by E. E. Smith, and “Blackberry Wine” by Joanne Harris (Sing it with me, one of these things is not like the other~).
The first two I picked completely arbitrarily by their cover art and thought they would be right up my alley. Pulp sci-fi with hand-painted cover art? Yes, please! I had only vaguely heard of Edgar Rice Burroughs and had never heard of E. E. Smith. Then I actually opened the books and found them a slog. If it takes active willpower to continue reading a book, then it’s a poorly written book, no matter who the author may be. So I chucked them both to the side and opened the third novel, “Blackberry Wine”.
And when the narrator turned out to be a literal bottle of wine, I was hooked.
It’s hard for me to classify what “Blackberry Wine” is. It’s not urban fantasy, despite the fantastical elements. It’s not a murder mystery, despite the fact that there is a murder/suicide (I won’t spoil which it turns out to be). It’s not a love story, despite the love and romance that plays out. If “mid-life crisis” was a genre, I put it in there. As it is, I’d put I think “slice of life” is the best approximation for this story.
I wasn’t kidding when I said that the meta narrator is a literal bottle of wine. It’s a bottle of Fleurie from 1962. Wine is actually subject of major importance throughout the book (it does take place in France, after all). Each wine is treated almost as if each bottle was its own character, with unique personalities and flavors.
The wine in question belongs to our central character, Jay Mackintosh. He’s an author with a single bestselling novel to his name and survives by writing “sci-fi rubbish” and living off the assets of his girlfriend TV-star, Kerry. Kerry is an obnoxious attention-seeker who is constantly schmoozing with the rich and famous to make herself more rich and famous.
Whatever love existed between Jay and Kerry disappeared years ago, and they stay together for convenience more than anything else. Jay is listless and meandering, writing story after story without conviction, drinking more than he should, and smoking whenever Kerry isn’t around. After seeing an ad in the paper, he buys, on a whim, a house in France and moves to the tiny village of Lansquenet to get away from it all.
The story is constantly jumping back and forth between the years 1977 and 1999. In the early years, we see Jay as a kid living with his Grandparents in Pog Hill since his parents divorced. However, he spends most of his time with an elderly man named Joe Cox, a nearly illiterate farmer who’s constantly telling stories of his adventures around the world, and becomes a sort of father / mentor to Jay.
He has a unique collection of plants and varieties of vegetables that have nearly gone extinct because of mass farming. Joe is also extremely superstitious and carried around herbs and incense and talismans to bring luck and good omens.
Jump to 1999, when Jay is visiting his new house, and he starts getting visions of Joe talking to him, giving him advice, and inspiring him as he writes. And as Jay settles into his new life, he quickly becomes entangled by the gossip, hope, and dreams of Lansquenet and its’ inhabitants- and, most of all, his reclusive neighbor, Marise, and the mysterious suicide of her Husband…
At one point in the story, Joe Cox describes something that he calls “Layman’s Alchemy: The Magic of Everyday Things”. I think this is supposed to be a central theme and message of the story- that life is full of wonder and splendor all around us all the time, if only we occasionally stopped to appreciate it.
The novel goes into exquisite detail to describe how beautiful something as simple as drinking a glass of wine can be, and Joanne Harris’ prose is very evocative without being pretentious. I just want to point out what an accomplishment that is, considering the subject matter of this book is wine, French people, and struggling authors.
However, there is one nitpick I do have to mention about how this novel portrays magic: The magic is literally real. It’s not all within us or made from love or something equally romantic. Magic or astral projection or whatever is happening… is actually happening. Jay is constantly seeing visions of Joe Cox, right? At first, it’s written like it’s all in Jay’s head and fine.
But then he starts telling Jay details that Jay himself didn’t know- like how his girlfriend Kerry’s eyes weren’t actually green; she wore contacts. Okay, maybe he noticed, and it just never clicked for him. That could still be in his head. However, the definitive proof is when another character acknowledges Joe’s presence and says something that only Joe knew / would say.
And it’s never brought up again! Like, actual magic is proven to exist, and it’s just kind of glossed over. The hallucination of Joe tells Jay that he’s Astral Projecting, and it just seems like more of his rambling nonsense until this other character actually mentions seeing Joe too! It sets up a powerful moment, but I feel like there are implications here that are simply ignored… the fantasy fan in me is seething- seething, I say- over this!
This also implies that Joe’s wines, a powerful factor in moving the plot forward in several important scenes, are not merely being described as magical in an artsy-fartsy description. There is literal magic at work, potions, if you will, where sentient wine bottles getting drunk have powerful mind-altering effects on their drinkers.
Yet… it works. I sort of love this low-level magical setting that was (probably unintentionally) created. It fits the story’s theme of Layman’s Alchemy: The Magic of Everyday Things by making everyday things (like wine) have literal magic properties. And that’s what makes “Blackberry Wine” stand out to me in a way I never really expected it would.
So, allow me to cut to the chase: Do I recommend “Blackberry Wine”?
Yes, yes, I do.
Joanne Harris’ writing style is exemplary. The story flows easily and naturally- incidentally, like wine. The characters come alive with distinct personalities that jump off the pages, and after reading some really drab sci-fi recently, it’s a hugely welcome breath of fresh air. There are a LOT of things in this book that normally does not appeal to me that simply clicked here.
I don’t usually read about wine, romance, slice of life, or the French (it’s been years since I studied the language, and, like most students, I have practically forgotten all of it). Perhaps it’s the inclusion of the elements I do love that make it all come together for me. Magic, murder, and mystery that’s all so grounded it becomes part of the mundanities of everyday life.
However, I think that at the end of the day, it all comes down to compelling characters. Jay Mackintosh is simply a good guy trying hard to live a quiet, peaceful life. The inhabitants of Lansquenet feel real, with ambitions and worries and dreams for the little village to become something greater. Marise is reserved and reclusive, and as you learn more about her, it makes complete sense as to why.
And Joe “Jackapple” Cox is a wonderful, lovable old man- but he’s no Gandalf, or Dumbledore, or even Master Roshi. He’s not especially wise or knowledgeable, except in regards to his farm, and his stories and adventures are dubious at best.
“Blackberry Wine” could be summed up in a couple of different ways. It could be seen as the story of Jay’s closure with Joe. It could be interpreted as the “mid-life crisis” version of a coming-of-age story… if that makes any sense. It could be a romance, or a mystery, or a murder mystery. Because it’s really about all these things, from the small minutiae to the greater themes.
In other words, it’s a story about life. Loving life. Appreciating life. Accepting what you do and don’t have. Finding the best way forward for you, and not the one that everyone else expects of you (which I think is probably the greater plot twist than anything else in this novel). Jay’s story is simply compelling in a way I never thought it could be, but that’s life, eh?
9 / 10 Better than it has any right to be. Superb prose. Compelling characters. Literal, unexplained magic. Narrated by a literal bottle of wine.