Five Quarters of the Orange
Joanne Harris
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Five Quarters of the Orange
Joanne Harris
320 pages
June 2002
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Five Quarters of the Orange is Joanne Harris’ latest novel, her previous titles being Chocolat and Blackberry Wine. As you can see Harris seems to be preoccupied with food. In Five Quarters of the Orange she skillfully blends a story of revenge, sexuality, and suspense -- it's The Summer of My German Soldier meets Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. The story is set in occupied France in the small town of Les Laveuses. The Dartigen children, nine-year-old Framboise, her fourteen-year-old brother, Cassis, and twelve-year-old sister, Reinette-Claude, are drawn to the neighbouring town of Anger, it is teaming with Nazis and the children are naturally curious. Cassis and Reinette have taken to chatting with a certain German soldier in exchange for magazines, sweets and cigarettes (well, this is France).

But what’s this about oranges? Five quarters? Well, that’s Harris being brilliant. The children’s mother, Mirabelle, suffers from intense migraines and violent blackouts; each of her spells is preceded by the scent of oranges. Framboise cunningly uses this to her advantage, procuring oranges from Tomas, her German soldier, and secreting the peel around the house. The scent convinces her mother that she is about to have one of her spells, she takes morphine tablets, and takes to her bed, thus leaving the children to their own devices for hours on end. But five quarters? There is no such thing – there we have the logic of children: split an orange five ways and what do you get? Five quarters. It’s a subtle reference to the children’s logic and rationale: they’ll only tell the Nazis about people in Anger, they’ll only tell them about people they don’t know. After all nothing bad will happen to them – they’ll just have their contraband taken away - a redistribution of wealth, it’s only fair right? Cassis believes they are merely doing what Robin Hood would do.

A child’s ability to blend fact with fiction has life altering affects. In addition to the children’s interpretation of the world around them is woven the local superstition of Old Mother. Old Mother is an ancient pike living in the Loire River – if you catch her she will grant you a wish; if she catches your eye, you or someone you love will soon die. Framboise takes it upon herself to catch Old Mother. Her determination to do so sets off a chain of events that lead to tragedy. The scene in which Framboise captures Old Mother and makes her wish is chilling. I found myself gasp as I read Harris’ descriptive prose, and I am seriously thinking about sending the bill for Kleenex to my editor.

I highly recommend Five Quarters of the Orange, and I’ll be the first in line to see the movie. Harris is a talented storyteller accurately capturing the cruelty and naivete of children, the paranoia of wartime, and the patience of love. I give Five Quarters of the Orange a delicious 4 out of 5 stars.

© 2002 by Laura Merrill Miller for Curled Up With a Good Book

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