Jackapple Joe was the first adult book he had written. But instead of releasing him it had trapped him in childhood. In 1977 he had rejected magic ... He was on his own and that was the way he wanted it. As if when he dropped Joe's seeds into the cutting at Pog Hill he was also letting go of everything he'd clung to in those past three years: the talismans, the red ribbons, Gilly, the dens, the wasps' nests, the treks along the railway line ... (p. 284)
Picked this up as light reading (literally and figuratively!) and was pleasantly surprised. I liked Chocolat and have amassed a small collection of Harris's novels: judging from Blackberry Wine they are ideal quick reads: short chapters, simple plots slowly playing out, likeable characters and straightforward prose with moments of magic.
Jay Mackintosh is a blocked writer: one literary bestseller (Three Summers with Jackapple Joe) behind him, and a series of cliched SF thrillers (The G-sus Gene, Psy-wrens of Mars) under a pseudonym, which pay the rent. In his cellar are six bottles of home-made wine, Joe's Specials, which he's rescued from oblivion. Escaping London, he heads for the fictional French village of Lasquenet, where he encounters the widow Marise -- who thinks the house he's just bought should be hers by right -- together with her deaf daughter and a cast of local colour.
He takes the wine with him, which is handy as this novel is narrated by a Fleurie '62, pert, garrulous ... cheery and a little brash. And he finds himself returning in memory to those Seventies summer holidays, exiled to a small Northern mining town, growing up in the company of local eccentric Joe and learning about gardening, wine-making, voodoo charms and astral travel. Joe taught him that living alongside a railway is like living on a beach: the tide brings new jetsam every day. (p.28) In fact, Joe's still with him in a very real sense. And the radio plays golden oldies from those lost summers ...
Jay unravels the mystery of Marise's nasty past, and comes to a few conclusions about his own life: fame, fortune, memory, loyalty, abandonment, love. There's a lot of abandonment in this novel: Jay is abandoned by his parents, his friends and by Joe, and in turn he runs away from things. (I felt he treated his London girlfriend Kerry pretty shabbily, though she was portrayed as a one-dimensional literary golddigger.)
As in Chocolat there's a quiet undercurrent of magic, though nothing explicit: strange things are happening, and Jay gradually regains an element of faith that he'd lost. Only then can he recognise Joe's final gift to him.
Occasional switches of viewpoint (things that neither Jay nor the lageniform narrator could know) are jarring: there is a plethora of detail concerning gardening. And there are a few loose ends that I'd have liked tied off (Jay's family, Marise's mother-in-law). But on the whole a satisfactory read, evocative with the smells and sounds and tastes of childhood summers and enriched by threads of simple magic.