Saturday 24 March 2018

Books: Fifty shades of Gore

Anne Cunningham will be gutted if this all-consuming -- indeed, biting -- tale is not the most talked about book of 2014

Penelope Cruz in 'Volver'
Penelope Cruz in 'Volver'
Food for thought: Natalie Young is relentless in poking our food-obsessed culture right in the eye

Anne Cunningham

A cottage in Surrey, on the edge of a forest. Home to Lizzie Prain, ordinary housewife, 50-something, who runs a small cake-baking business from the cottage.

It's also home and workshop to Jacob, her (sometimes) sculptor husband. And her faithful Ridgeback mutt, Rita.

It's the quintessential Escape To The Country isn't it? Until this superb satire on idyllic pastoral life begins to bite. Literally. Around the end of page three. Lizzie has just killed Jacob by splitting his head open with a garden spade. She's somewhat overwrought in the aftermath of the murder, a single -- and singular -- impulsive deed, and so decides she must carve him up and eat him. She's got the culinary skills and, by means of an ingenious seam of 'notes to self' running throughout the narrative, she finds the -- ahem -- balls to do it. Although she runs into unforeseen obstacles when faced with the challenge of whipping up something delicious from his head.

"Her mother had said: 'you have got to get your head round disappointment. And try not to drink'." But Lizzie has never gotten over the disappointment -- 30 years on -- of marrying Jacob, with his interminable bouts of depression, his unfulfilled dreams of being a prolific sculptor, his occasional visits to a whorehouse in Guildford, and his trips to London to sell the odd piece of sculpture to the mysterious Joanna.

Jacob Prain is no villain. He's just a slacker, really. And Lizzie Prain is no bloodthirsty femme fatale, either. She is merely disenchanted with a long, loveless and childless marriage, and a constant struggle -- with money and with herself. She lacks the wherewithal to leave him for good, but somehow finds the courage on a cold and weakly sunned spring morning to kill him while he's planting an oak tree in the back garden. And her practical streak (which her husband always loathed) is what . . . um . . . sustains her in the days to follow.

This is the second novel by English writer Natalie Young, who worked in the book serialisation section of the London Times for some time and is herself recently divorced.

Talking about Season to Taste recently she said that it was not inspired by her own divorce. She said she had imagined a woman who is "unhappily married, and very, very stuck, sitting up in bed at night with what looks like a cookery book. Lying there beside a great big, fat, sweating, snoring, horrible, abusive brute".

She said she imagined this woman quietly getting some pleasure out of reading about a woman "who is putting testicles in a pan and making sausages, and a cassoulet from the internal organs" and walking around the garden with a bit of kitchen roll, eating "ketchup-covered thigh".

She has insisted, in other interviews, that her recent divorce was not nearly so cannibalistic, describing it as merely "sad".

"My ex-husband and I have a really good relationship," she reassured Tom Tivnan of The Bookseller magazine. I do hope so, if only for the ex's sake.

If you've ever despaired at a society which turns cooks into stars and bestselling authors, you will just love this novel. There are whole swathes of prose, rich and languid, describing the roasting of such delicacies as Jacob's foot. Or his hand, his femur, his sautéed family jewels. His bones are stewed in wine reductions, and the wine helps with the nibbling, too.

It was not lost on this reader that, it appears, the right amount of herbs and seasoning, garlic, shallots and fresh citric acid can make virtually anything edible. The meticulous details of braising Jacob Prain are both riotously funny and stomach-churning; there were moments when I was caught between howling and barfing.

Natalie Young is relentless in poking our food-obsessed culture right in the eye. This book, however, is so much more than a slicing satire. It is a thriller in the truest sense. I swallowed it whole, eager and enthralled. The narrative is crisp and snappy, the dialogue sparse, the pace never skips a beat.

Lizzie Prain's isolation is palpable, her despair is as hot and urgent as her blind panic. It is a rare gem, this novel, appealing to the popular fiction market and equally providing a gluttonous feast for the literati.

I think I've been lucky enough to sneak a pre-publication read of one of the huge sellers of 2014 which hits the bookshops on January 16. If this book doesn't fly off the shelves quicker than the reprints can handle, I'll be . . . er . . . gutted.

Irish Independent

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