Novel of the week

Holy Fools

Joanne Harris <em>Doubleday, 431pp, £15</em>

ISBN 0385603649

Few who read Chocolat, Joanne Harris's best-known novel, can be under any illusions about what she thinks of the Catholic Church. A tale of sensuousness versus censoriousness, liberality versus meanness, and chocolate versus the Church, it struck a resounding chord with the reading public. The saccharine film version wimped out of attacking the priesthood, but it was only a matter of time before she returned to the fray.

Harris's seventh novel, Holy Fools, is set in 17th-century France, at a time when the murder of Henry IV and fear of the plague and witchcraft have excited religious frenzy. As in Chocolat, the heroine, Juliette, is a single mother. Following the birth of her daughter, she gives up her career as an actress, rope-dancer and travelling player, and becomes a nun on the remote island abbey of Sainte Marie-de-la-Mer. Here, she cultivates the abbey garden and lives in peace until the arrival of her mortal enemy and former lover, LeMerle, now masquerading as a priest. LeMerle, whose narrative voice is interwoven with Juliette's, is accompanying the new Abbess, an 11-year-old aristocrat fanatically determined on reform.

Instantly, the essentially pagan, humanist life of the abbey is destroyed. Out goes the ancient piece of rock that superstitious "fisher-folk" pray to for a baby; in comes a sculpted version as hard and shallow as the new Abbess. Where the old Reverend Mother was kind and practical and could not read Latin, the pubescent Isabelle is burning with zeal. Juliette had even got away with keeping her long red hair beneath her wimple: now it must go. LeMerle ("it's good to have a captive audience") soon has them all in the palm of his hand. For aficionados of what could be called the Blue Nun school of fiction, it's only a matter of time before the religious repression turns into sexual expression and produces a series of visions, hauntings and crimes.

Harris is on the side of the senses - both common and sensual - and has the kind of passion for baiting Catholicism that can only come from having been formerly immersed in its doctrines. Both Juliette and LeMerle are too worldy-wise to believe in Christianity, but the essential difference between them is that Juliette, who blasphemously refuses to believe in sin, is full of charity and intellectual courage. She makes an unexpected ally of the "wild girl" Perette, and has learnt some of Copernicus's forbidden studies from a Jewish doctor who loved her mother. LeMerle, on the other hand, uses his talents only to exploit people for profit and revenge.

A weird and hugely enjoyable blend of Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudon and Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, Holy Fools concentrates on the dramatic battle of wits and wills between Juliette and LeMerle. Like Huxley's "delicious monster" Urbain Grandier, LeMerle is charming, clever and sophisticated; it is a measure of the degree to which Juliette once loved him that she now despises him. Her loathing is entirely fair. Not only did he attempt to pimp her, then betray the rest of the troupe in order to save his own skin, but he now exploits the nuns' credulity. In order to keep Juliette from exposing him, he kidnaps her adored five-year-old daughter.

At this point, one feels that any mother as passionate as Juliette would simply have cut the throat of her tormentor. Juliette's last act of courage is, however, to endow him with the possibility of self-knowledge and even redemption.

It is fashionable to decry Harris's talent as a novelist, and it is true that her books can seem comically dated. It is also the case that some of her works, such as Chocolat and the splendidly dark Five Quarters of the Orange, are very much superior to others, such as Blackberry Wine and Coastliners. If, however, you consider the harm that religious fanaticism and sexual repression continue to cause, then the stories she tells appear both consoling and wise.

Amanda Craig's new novel, Love in Idleness, will be published in July by Little, Brown

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2003 issue of the New Statesman, The British neoconservatives