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The Last Wine - a review of Blackberry Wine

By Linda Tiessen Wiebe

chickadeeA FEW WEEKS ago I was skiing through the woods just outside our city. It was a crisp Sunday morning and early clouds had given way to February sunshine. My husband and I stopped briefly to admire the view, and I noticed a little chickadee on the branch just above my shoulder. It flew in a circle over my head, and without thinking I lifted my hand to it. The little bird landed like a feather on my finger, looked inquiringly at me, and then flew off again. It felt like the most natural thing; only afterward did I marvel at how strange and beautiful this was.

Joanne Harris’ Blackberry Wine is similarly unassuming, at first. Billed as a loose sequel to Chocolat, it tells the story of Jay Macintosh, an English writer who tries to shake off a ten year writer’s block by moving to an isolated French village. It’s a well-written cozy read with endearing characters and a charming country setting. But like good wine that warms long after drinking, Blackberry Wine is more than it first presents. Indelibly pressed between the pages is a deeper story, ordinary and yet profound.

The title is taken from the narrator, a bottle of 1962 Fleurie wine. “Wine talks. Everyone knows that. Look around you. Ask the oracle at the street corner; the uninvited guest at the wedding feast; the holy fool.” Through its effervescence, we learn of how Jay Macintosh came to write his one critically acclaimed novel about his seminal adolescent years and how he has since been passively living in the wake of its success. Although he’s an established celebrity, Jay hasn’t done anything truly creative for over ten years. He feels trapped by his pretentious literary life and haunted by his novel about his friendship with Joe Cox, his elderly, eccentric mentor for three summers.

pull out quote iamgeIn the summer of 1975, in the wake of his celebrity parents’ bitter divorce, 13-year-old Jay spends the summer with his grandparents in a forgotten mining town. Spending his days aimlessly riding his bicycle, he comes across Joe in an allotment garden by the railroad behind Joe’s rundown house. Puttering in his garden Joe tells stories of his travels and gradually melts Jay’s London-born suspicion. Joe’s garden is a marvel of herbs, vegetables and fruit trees, tucked between an abandoned railroad bed and the town dump. He plants by a lunar calendar, follows mysterious rituals learned in Haiti and lives by what he calls a layman’s alchemy. He makes jams, preserves and wine, and generously gives most of it away to frequent visitors. Their friendship takes root as almost imperceptibly the two become teacher and student. Joe finds a receptive ear for his lore, and Jay a warm friendship to counterbalance his loneliness and growing rage at life’s apparent indifference.

To Joe, life is full of opportunity. A retired miner, missing two fingers, he lives as if life is magic. He is always mixing charms and remedies from his many herbs. He has collected rare seeds from the world over. Joe also listens seriously to Jay’s questions about life, and offers his own philosophy. Jay is cynical, yet his comic book-formed imagination is fascinated with Joe’s assumption about the flow of life. Joe is persuasive, even if half the time he seems to be talking tongue-in-cheek. Gradually, Jay learns to have faith, if not in Joe’s magic, at least in Joe. But some lessons take more than three summers to bear fruit.

bottle of wine imageIn 1999, Jay discovers six remaining bottles of Joe’s wine. As he drinks the first glass, his memory from 20 years ago is stirred, and the twinning of the time lines begins its work on Jay’s perception. His memory brings back much of the lore he learned from Joe, healing balms, planting cycles, grafting techniques. Jay has grown cynical; he sees life as things happening to him. He mirrors our own time where we’ve lost the ability to see how alive everything is. Scientism insists that only what the senses confirm is real. This is so pervasive we don’t even realize we’re doing it. Jay’s solution is to be mildly drunk most of the time, and to pretend he is someone else, writing second-rate science fiction under a pseudonym. Creativity and vitality, the joy in just being alive, has been relegated to Joe’s “magic”. To Jay it is literally about the herbs and wine and strange rituals. It is fake.

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