In many ways this is a strange book in both content and format, but once you read the first few chapters and get used to the way in which the story is told, The Vintner’s Luck (1998) is a compelling, page-turning read from an author whose style reminds me of a slightly more refined Joanne Harris.
Sobran Jodeau is a young vintner in early nineteenth century Burgundy; lovelorn and a little drunk when he wanders into his vineyards one summer night. It’s there he meets an angel called Xas, physically imposing and with wings that smell like snow. A conversation is struck, and the two agree to meet again at the same place in a year’s time.
So begins their relationship, spanning from 1808 to 1863, with each of The Vintner’s Luck’s chapters set a year apart and recounting the angel’s annual visit. The two discuss theology and philosophy, but also the everyday minutia of village life — births, marriages and deaths. Just as Sobran gleans details about the nature of heaven and the existence of God, Xas is fascinated by the simple lives of Sobran’s growing family and community.
It’s a book that requires a slow and leisurely read (maybe accompanied by a glass of wine, considering its emphasis on viticulture), as it gradually draws the reader into the extraordinary friendship between man and angel, and how it changes over the passing years.
The Vintner’s Luck is not going to be a book that appeals to everyone. The time skips between each chapter can be a little disconcerting, and the story is mostly interested in the life of Sobran and his immediate family (as someone who was most interested in the metaphysical details of Xas’s existence, I sometimes felt the book’s emphasis was on the wrong subject). A few subplots fall by the wayside, and one in particular — involving an ongoing murder mystery — is resolved in a rather ambiguous manner.
But while it lasts, the book is haunting and intriguing and thought-provoking. Elizabeth Knox has a strong grasp of language which results in beautiful prose: occasionally there’s a sentence or an idea that’s so striking I had to stop and ponder it for a while. She also paints a clear portrait of France at the turn of last century; often so vividly you can almost smell the grapes and feel the heat.
Meeting an angel is a double-edged sword for Sobran, requiring secrets and distance as much as enlightenment and wonder. The friendship also takes its toll on Xas, knowing as he does that one day Sobran will grow old and die. Maybe prepare some tissues along with that glass of wine.
It’s a dense, complex and in many ways difficult book — but I found it immensely rewarding and memorable. It’s hard to know what to compare it to, so I can only say if you want to try something truly different, then give The Vintner’s Luck a read.