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BOOK BIZ: Coastliners proves small towns can fight back

You don’t have to live on a coast line to enjoy Coastliners. The book is set on the tiny island of Le Devin in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the Brittany region of France. Don’t look for this island on a map because it was created by Harris based on childhood visits to her French grandfather’s summer home on a small island.

The story — as in other of Harris’ books — is told from the viewpoint of a determined woman who shakes up a stagnant town. Madeleine (Mado) returns to her home village of Les Salants on Le Devin after a 10 year absence. She’s an artist who’s been living in Paris with her mother. After her mother’s death, she goes home to reconcile with her estranged father. She finds her father locked in such bitter remorse and depression that he can’t talk to her. The village is also in the throes of death as business and tourists are concentrated at the other end of the island in the more prosperous town of La Houssiniere.

Les Salants’ troubles — erosion, changing tides, diminishing fish, loss of young people — can easily be seen as metaphors for the woes of small towns everywhere as the world bypasses them. With energetic leadership, some small towns are embracing their isolation, quirkiness and lack of numbing sameness to emerge as places outsiders want to visit. Mado provides that leadership for Les Salants. There are many colorful village characters who must be won over to her plan of action. There are warring fishing families, naysayers and local superstitions that test her mettle.

Harris is something of an expert on how a community’s beliefs conspire to limit its citizens’ actions and prospects. These poor people practice a kind of “naturalized Catholicism” that makes them fatalistic and passive. As their homes and graves slowly wash into the sea, the residents have grown ever more devoted to charms, symbols, incantations, and rituals.

There is a touch of mystery (and eventually romance) with the village stranger who uses his engineering background to build a breakwater of sandbags and old tires that redirects the tide. There’s a villain, the island’s wealthiest man, who’s quietly buying Les Salants properties to create more tourist accommodations. And there are surprising, long-buried family secrets that emerge to shake up what everyone thought they knew.


» Coastliners

By Joanne Harris

Published by Perennial (A hardcover edition was published by William Morrow.)

$13.95 softback

— Lynn Lofton, mbj@msbusiness.com


About Lynn Lofton

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