I first read Joanne Harris’s Chocolat when I was thirteen. My parents were dragging me across northern Queensland and up into the Territory. Outside, there was hot red dust and dead kangaroos.
The speed limit was ‘open’, so we drove quickly, and I wound down the window so I could feel the wind on my face. Wedged against the boxy TV set Dad couldn’t go anywhere without, I thumbed through the pages, breathed in the second-hand bookstore smell. I read about gypsies, about church and chocolate, about small-town France. And I knew what I wanted to be and how I wanted to live.
I think it’s the rhythm, the beautiful authorial voice that rolls its vowels and trips over syllables as if it were speaking just to me. Back then, when I stayed up late in my tent with a torch swinging from a loop at the top, Chocolat was my own personal story. I skipped stones with Anouk and watched Vianne temper chocolate, I danced with the gypsies on the banks of the river. When I had to come back to the real world I went fishing or sightseeing with my parents, complaining all the way. I dreamed of travel – clearly, I didn’t know the meaning of irony. What I did know was that I wanted an imaginary rabbit of my own, a deck of tarot, and a mother that served chocolate for breakfast. But most of all I wanted to follow the wind.
A few months after the trip, I was lying in my sister’s bed, talking about nothing. She was older than me, so everything I said always felt like nothing. We watched the patterns of light and dark on her ceiling, and I told her what I wanted to be.
‘A gypsy,’ she said. It wasn’t a question.
‘A river gypsy. In my book they have their own houseboats; they can go all over France. Then they stop in little villages and stay for a while. People don’t always like them, but-‘
She stopped me, laughing. ‘You’re going to live your life by a book?’
The problem is I think I’ve ended up living most of my life by Chocolat. The rhythms stay with you, even if you can’t
remember the words. When I open it now, it takes only a moment and I’m lost, caught up in the patterns of speech that tell me it’s time to dream, to follow the wind.
When I was thirteen, romanticised Lansquenet was more real to me than Longreach or Barcaldine, and the characters much more interesting than those we met along the road. The only thing that tore me away, just for a moment, was the sex scene. I stopped, shocked. Checked the tent’s zipper, and covered the torch to see if my parent’s shadows were shifting against the walls of the tent. Then I giggled, and read it again.
This September, we’ve asked eight writers to revisit their favourite books from childhood for our new series, When I was young.