The ‘Chocolat’ of 2011

2011-09-07 00:00

SET aside a quiet day, switch off the phone and tell the family you’re down with a migraine and should not be disturbed. Make a flask of tea and horde some rusks and chocolates for easy sustenance. Don’t forget the tissues. Then close the door and open the ­pages of The Language of Flowers, and enjoy some of the best reading you will have this year.

We first encounter Victoria Jones as she is released from a state group home on her 18th birthday and told to fend for herself. An unwanted baby, she has spent her life in and out of ­foster homes and places of state care, spurning friendly or caring advances from any quarters.

Distrustful of anyone who tries to show her kindness, she has had a deplorable childhood, and has in turn inflicted hell on those around her, and has donned a cast-iron shell so no one can hurt her anymore. The only thing she immerses herself in is flowers and the language they represent, a forgotten code from Victorian days. But where, in the midst of a dysfunctional childhood, did she get this knowledge from?

Damaged goods emotionally, she blows the money she is given to survive on, on milk cartons to be used when empty to pot her stolen plants, and sets up home in a thicket in a public park, tending her private garden, sleeping rough and stealing food.

A florist one day discovers her talent with flowers and hires her to help. Shopping at a flower market one day, she meets Grant again, who she had known as a child. It emerges that ­Victoria once had a home and a foster mother who adored her. So what went so badly wrong? Although itching to tell, I wouldn’t want to spoil the ­superb story line, and ruin the book for anyone. It’s a very entertaining and touching read.

The tissue reference should not deter any reader. When those tears come, they are satisfying and of ­concern only because they inconveniently blur the words on the page for their duration. What’s wrong with a touch of sentimentality after all?

Diffenbaugh writes well in a style that tends to economise on explicit ­explanations and rambling descriptions. She does not take her reader for a fool who needs each nuance explained. It’s a relief to be able to draw your own conclusions and build up your own pictures, which emerge powerfully from the text. The chapters alternate from present to past, ­allowing both of Victoria’s poignant ­stories to unfold in tandem.

The book will no doubt be a bestseller and have bookclubs begging for more. Touted as the Chocolat of 2011, I found it happily less mystical and more real, and think the comparison is diminishing if anything. It will make for a good film, no doubt. A handy guide to flowers and their Victorian meanings is contained at the back of the book.

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