Coastliners a novel, p.1
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       Coastliners: A Novel, p.1

           Joanne Harris
Coastliners: A Novel

  to my mother




  Part One

  Flotsom and Jetsom

  1 I returned after ten years’ absence, on a hot day…

  2 “Prasteau. That’s an island name.”

  3 The village was deserted.

  4 My mother was from the mainland.

  5 The festival of Sainte-Marine-de-la-Mer occurs…

  6 Traditionally, after the cliff-top ceremony…

  7 I slept in my old room with the sound of the sea in my ears.

  8 I should have expected it.

  9 He hadn’t changed.

  10 As I was leaving the house I met Alain Guénolé…

  11 I arrived at the house to find my father in bed.

  12 I arrived at the house half an hour later…

  13 My first impulse was to go and see Brismand straightaway.

  14 From the light at the kitchen window I knew…

  15 I should never have spoken to him, I told myself.

  16 The week that followed brought another spate…

  17 Discouraged and angry, I concentrated my energies…

  18 Disappointed by my failure to persuade…

  Part Two

  Turning the Tide

  1 Omer’s house flooded overnight.

  2 The sound of the waves was enormous,…

  3 A round of drinks in Angélo’s bar…

  4 Aristide, Matthias, Alain, Omer, Toinette, Xavier, and I…

  5 It was morning by the time I got home.

  6 It must be difficult for a mainlander to understand.

  7 The next couple of weeks brought higher tides…

  8 We finished the modules in the hangar, preparing…

  9 Now came a time of uncertainty, for me as much as…

  10 As soon as I reached the village I knew something…

  11 They stayed for two hours.

  12 My sister and her family boarded at Les Immortelles.

  13 January brought more sand at La Goulue.

  14 By February the changes at La Goulue were beginning…

  15 I returned alone, having detoured via Nantes to pick…

  16 Flynn was dismissive of my suspicions.

  17 March left us a gift of high tides but fair weather.

  18 There followed a rigorous campaign against the Houssins.

  19 Easter came, and the Brismand 1 began to run…

  20 Of course I said nothing to anyone about it.

  21 In the first week of June, school broke up…

  Part Three

  Riding the Waves

  1 My sister and her family turned up three days later.

  2 Summer sailed in.

  3 As July ended I began to feel a growing concern…

  4 The midmonth tides had brought heat storms,…

  5 When I passed by the blockhaus the following…

  6 I found Toinette Prossage in her garden, hoeing bulbs…

  7 When I got home, Adrienne was there…

  8 I don’t believe in omens. In that I am not a typical islander.

  Part Four

  Home Is the Sandman

  1 I raced up the cliff-side path, my thoughts…

  2 “It was going to be me, you know.”

  3 Les Immortelles was dark.

  4 So that was what I’d been searching for…

  5 Summer nights are never quite dark,…

  6 “I can guess why you’re coming by here…

  7 By midday the fog had lifted a little.

  8 I turned up late at the meeting.

  9 Preferring not to explain the disappearence of Xavier…

  10 I remember it as a painting, a violent…

  11 By then I had been in Les Immortelles…

  12 It was two days before Sainte-Marine’s festival…

  13 I know guilt. I know it very well.

  14 That’s how it ends, as it began.

  15 That night, powered by devinnoise, we began what…

  16 I know he can’t stay in Les Salants.



  About the Author

  Also by Joanne Harris



  About the Publisher

  No man is an island, entire of itself;

  every man is a piece of the Continent,

  a part of the main.


  “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”

  To see a world in a grain of sand,

  And a heaven in a wild flower,

  Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,

  And Eternity in an hour.


  “Auguries of Innocence”


  Islands are different. The smaller the island, the more true this becomes. Look at Britain. Barely conceivable that this narrow stretch of land should sustain so much diversity. Cricket, cream teas, Shakespeare, Sheffield, fish and chips in vinegary newspaper, Soho, two universities, the beachfront at Southend, striped deck chairs in Green Park, Coronation Street, Oxford Street, lazy Sunday afternoons. So many contradictions. All marching together like boozy protesters who have not yet realized their main cause for complaint is one another. Islands are pioneers, splinter groups, malcontents, misfits, natural isolationists. As I said, different.

  This island, for instance. Only a bike ride from one end to the other. A man walking on water might reach the coast in an afternoon. The island of Le Devin, one of the many islets caught like crabs in the shallows off the Vendée coastline. Eclipsed by Noirmoutier on the coastal side, by Ile d’Yeu from the south, on a foggy day you might miss it altogether. Maps hardly give it a mention. Indeed it scarcely deserves island status at all, being little more than a cluster of sandbanks with pretensions, a rocky spine to lift it out of the Atlantic, a couple of villages, a small fish-packing factory, a single beach. At the far end, home—Les Salants, a row of cottages—barely enough to call a village—staggering down through rocks and dunes toward a sea that encroaches closer at every bad tide. Home the inescapable place, the place to which the heart’s compass turns.

  Given the choice I might have preferred something different. Somewhere in England perhaps, where my mother and I were happy for nearly a year before my restlessness drove us on. Or Ireland, or Jersey, Iona, or Skye. You see that I seek out islands as if by instinct, as if trying to recapture the elements of my island, Le Devin, the single place for which there can be no substitute.

  Its shape is rather like that of a sleeping woman. Les Salants is her head, shoulders turned protectively against the weather. La Goulue is her belly, La Houssinière the sheltered crook of her knees. All around lies La Jetée, a skirt of sandy islets, expanding and contracting according to the tides, slowly shifting the shoreline, nibbling one side, depositing on the other, rarely keeping their shape long enough to earn names. Beyond that is the total unknown, the shallow shelf beyond La Jetée dropping sharply into a rift of unsounded depth that locals call the Nid’Poule. A message in a bottle, thrown from any point on the island, will most often return to La Goulue—the Greedy One—behind which the village of Les Salants huddles against the hard sea wind. Its position east of the rocky head of Pointe Griznoz means that gritty sand, silt, and general refuse tend to accumulate here. High tides and winter storms exacerbate this, building battlements of seaweed on the rocky shore that may stand for six months or a year before another storm washes them away.

  As you can see, Le Devin is no beauty. Like our patron saint, Marine-de-la-Mer, the hunched figure has a rough and primitive look. Few tourists come here. There is little to attract them. If from the air these islands are dancers with tulle ski
rts spread wide, then Le Devin is the girl in the back row of the chorus—a rather plain girl—who has forgotten her steps. We have fallen behind, she and I. The dance goes on without us.

  But the island has retained its identity. A stretch of land only a few kilometers long, and yet it has a character entirely of its own, dialects, food, traditions, dress, all as different from the other islands as they are from mainland France. The islanders think of themselves as Devinnois rather than French or even Vendéen. They have no allegiance to politicians. Few of their sons bother to perform their military service. So far from the center of things, it seems absurd. And so far from the reaches of officialdom and the law, Le Devin follows its own rules.

  Which is not to say foreigners are unwelcome. Quite the opposite; if we knew how to encourage tourism, we would. In Les Salants, tourism means wealth. We look across the water at Noirmoutier with its hotels and guest houses and shops and the great graceful bridge, which flies across the water from the mainland. There, the summer roads are a river of cars—with foreign plates and luggage straining from the racks—the beaches black with people, and we try to imagine what it would be like if they were ours. But little of it ever goes beyond fantasy. The tourists—the few who venture this far—stay stubbornly in La Houssinière on the near side of the island. There is nothing for them in Les Salants, with its rocky, beachless coast, its dunes of stones mortared together with hard sand, its gritty ceaseless wind.

  The people of La Houssinière know this. There has been a feud for as long as anyone can remember between the Houssins and the Salannais, religious issues at first, then disputes over fishing rights, building rights, trade, and inevitably, land. Reclaimed land belongs by law to those who have reclaimed it and to their descendants. It is the Salannais’ only wealth. But La Houssinière controls deliveries from the coast (its oldest family runs the only ferry) and sets the prices. If an Houssin can cheat a Salannais, he will. If a Salannais manages to get the better of an Houssin, the whole village shares in the triumph.

  And La Houssinière has a secret weapon. It’s called Les Immortelles, a sandy little beach, two minutes from the harbor and protected on one side by an ancient jetty. Here sailboats skim the water, protected from the westerly winds. This is the only safe place to bathe or to sail, sheltered from the strong currents that tear at the headland. This beach—this freak of nature—has made the difference between the two communities. The village has grown into a little town. Because of it La Houssinière is prosperous by island standards. There is a restaurant, a hotel, a cinema, a discothèque, a campsite. In summer the small harbor is packed with pleasure boats. La Houssinière houses the island’s mayor, its policeman, its post office, its only priest. A number of families from the coast rent houses here in August, bringing trade with them.

  Meanwhile Les Salants is dead throughout the summer, panting and parching in the wind and heat. But to me, it’s still home. Not the most beautiful place in the world, or even the most welcoming. But it’s my place.

  Everything returns. It’s a maxim on Le Devin. Living on the gaudy rag-end of the Gulf Stream, it is an affirmation of hope. Everything returns eventually. Wrecked boats, messages in bottles, lifebuoys, jetsam, fishermen lost at sea. The pull of La Goulue is too strong for many to resist. It may take years. The mainland is alluring, with its money, cities, and antic life. Three out of four children leave at eighteen, dreaming of the world beyond La Jetée. But the Greedy One is patient as well as hungry. And for those like myself, with nothing else to anchor us down, return seems inevitable.

  I had a history, once. Not that it matters now. On Le Devin no one cares about any history but our own. Objects wash up on these shores—wreckage, beach balls, dead birds, empty wallets, expensive training shoes, plastic cutlery, even people—and no one questions their origin. The sea removes what is not claimed. Sea creatures too will occasionally move along this highway, Portuguese men-of-war and nurse sharks and sea horses and brittle stars and the occasional whale. They stay or they go, brief curiosities to be gaped at and as rapidly forgotten as soon as they leave our waters. To the islanders, nothing exists beyond La Jetée. From that point onward there’s nothing to break the horizon until you reach America. No one ventures farther. No one studies the tides or what they bring. Except me. Being jetsam myself, I feel entitled.

  Take this beach, for example. It’s a remarkable thing. One island, a single beach; a happy accident of tides and currents; a hundred thousand tons of ancient sand, stubborn as rock, gilded by a thousand envious glances into something more precious than gold dust. Certainly it has made the Houssins wealthy, although we both know—Houssins and Salannais alike—how easily, how arbitrarily things could have been different.

  An altered current, drifting a hundred meters to the left or the right. A degree shift in the prevailing wind. Movement in the geography of the seabed. A bad storm. Any one of these things at any time could bring about a cataclysmic reversal. Luck is like a pendulum, swinging slowly across the decades, bringing the inevitable in its shadow.

  Les Salants still waits patiently, expectantly, for its return.


  Flotsam and



  * * *

  I returned after ten years’ absence, on a hot day in late August, on the eve of summer’s first bad tides. As I stood watching the approach from the deck of Brismand 1, the old ferry into La Houssinière, it was almost as though I had never left. Nothing had changed: the sharp smell of the air; the deck beneath my feet; the sound of the gulls in the hot blue sky. Ten years, almost half my life, erased at a single stroke, like writing in the sand. Or almost.

  I’d brought scarcely any luggage, and that reinforced the illusion. But I’d always traveled light. We both had, Mother and I; there had never been much to weigh us down. And at the end it had been I who paid the rent for our Paris flat, working in a dingy late-night café to supplement the income from the paintings Mother hated so much, while she struggled with her emphysema and pretended not to know she was dying.

  All the same I should have liked to have returned wealthy, successful. To show my father how well we’d managed without his help. But my mother’s small savings had run out long ago, and my own—a few thousand francs in a Crédit Maritime; a folder of unsold paintings—amounted to little more than we’d taken with us the day we left. Not that it mattered. I was not planning to stay. However potent the illusion of time suspended, I had another life now. I had changed.

  No one looked at me twice as I stood slightly apart from the others on the deck of the Brismand 1. It was high season, and there were already a good number of tourists aboard. Some were even dressed as I was, in sailcloth trousers and fisherman’s vareuse—that shapeless garment halfway between a shirt and a jacket—town people trying too hard not to look it. Tourists with rucksacks, suitcases, dogs, and children stood crammed together on the deck among crates of fruit and groceries, cages of chickens, mailbags, boxes. The noise was appalling. Beneath it, the hissshh of the sea against the ferry’s hull and the screee of gulls. My heart was pounding with the surf.

  As Brismand 1 neared the harbor I let my eyes travel across the water toward the esplanade. As a child I had liked it here; I’d often played on the beach, hiding under the fat bellies of the old beach huts while my father conducted whatever business he had at the harbor. I recognized the faded Choky parasols on the terrasse of the little café where my sister used to sit; the hot dog stand; the gift shop. It was perhaps busier than I remembered; a straggling row of fishermen with pots of crabs and lobsters lined the quay, selling their catch. I could hear music from the esplanade; below it, children played on a beach that, even at high tide, seemed smoother and more generous than I remembered. Things were looking good for La Houssinière.

  I let my eyes roam along the Rue des Immortelles, the main street, which runs parallel to the seafront. I could see three people sitting there side by side in what had once been my favorite spot: the seawall b
elow the esplanade overlooking the bay. I remembered sitting there as a child, watching the distant gray jawbone of the mainland, wondering what was there. I narrowed my eyes to see more clearly; even from halfway across the bay I could see that two of the figures were nuns.

  I recognized them now as the ferry drew close—Soeur Extase and Soeur Thérèse, Carmelite volunteers from the nursing home at Les Immortelles, were already old before I was born. I felt oddly reassured that they were still there. Both nuns were eating ice creams, their habits hitched up to their knees, bare feet dangling over the parapet. The man sitting beside them, face obscured by a wide-brimmed hat, could have been anyone.

  The Brismand 1 drew alongside the jetty. A gangplank was raised into place, and I waited for the tourists to disembark. The jetty was as crowded as the boat; vendors stood by selling drinks and pastries; a taxi driver advertised his trade; children with trolleys vied for the attention of the tourists. Even for August, it was busy.

  “Carry your bags, mademoiselle?” A round-faced boy of about fourteen, wearing a faded red T-shirt, tugged at my sleeve. “Carry your bags to the hotel?”

  “I can manage, thanks.” I showed him my tiny case.

  The boy gave me a puzzled glance, as if trying to place my features. Then he shrugged and moved on to richer pickings.

  The esplanade was crowded. Tourists leaving; tourists arriving; Houssins in between. I shook my head at an elderly man attempting to sell me a knot work key ring; it was Jojo-le-Goëland, who used to take us for boat rides in summer, and although he’d never been a friend—he was an Houssin, after all—I felt a pang that he hadn’t recognized me.

  “Are you staying here? Are you a tourist?” It was the round-faced boy again, now joined by a friend, a dark-eyed youth in a leather jacket who was smoking a cigarette with more bravado than pleasure. Both boys were carrying suitcases.

  “I’m not a tourist. I was born in Les Salants.”

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