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Saturday, 25 April 2015

Review: Coastliners, Joanne Harris

If there is one thing this novel will tell you, it is that island life, no matter how picturesque the dressing, is far from romantic. Islanders can harbour the deepest of secrets, iron-clad bonds, and grudges that seem ancient as the Classics.

Le Devin, the setting of the book, is split into two sides: La Houssinière, prosperous, tourist-friendly, and claiming the most habitable part of the island; and Les Salants, a poor fishing village with little to recommend it to the tourists that descend on the island each year. It is no surprise that rivalry has existed between the two communities for as long as anyone can remember, mainly thanks to La Houssinière's complete control over the island's only beach, the main source of prosperity.

It is into this community that Mado, the book's protagonist, enters. Returning to the home that she left when she was small in order to care for her father, she quickly sees that Les Salants is suffering from an almost incurable sense of hopelessness, and desperately wants to wake it up. She meets Flynn, someone not from Le Devin but is treated as one of Les Salants, anyway, and tries to reacquaint herself with the small community. She quickly learns to distrust Claude Brismand, a La Houssinere entrepreneur who essentially seeks to own the whole island, and openly allies herself with Les Salants with the hope that in doing so, they will allow her to help them rejuvenate their part of the island.

It's easy to get swept along in Harris' evocative style, despite the oppressiveness that you can feel at the lack of hope in Les Salants. You can almost taste the salty air, feel the crisp breeze, and your heart aches at the thought of the Les Salants community dying because no one knows how to fix it, or is willing to find out why. However, Harris gradually starts to inject hope like a drip feed. Mado finds out what is happening to the beach and works with Flynn to find a solution; the beloved Saint, lost in the sea at her own festival, miraculously returns; the rivalries within Les Salants itself is put aside for the sake of banding together and doing what they can to put Les Salants on the map. But just when everything is going swimmingly, disaster strikes. Betrayals, hurts, secrets come out into the open and you wonder why they bothered putting in the effort in the first place.

It's a story that can never have a true ending, only a kind of pause, and Harris chooses the pause well. It's difficult to say goodbye to the characters, for whom you feel admiration and pity in equal measure, as you want to know that they're going to be okay. Yet, their lives will go on; it's just unfortunate that we don't get to witness it.

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