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Review: Popular fiction: Sustenance by Elizabeth Wassell

A glance at women's magazines proves that food is about more than staving off hunger: it's as much about living up to an ideal of oneself.

Eating out has its rituals, and chefs are the current filmstars. Sustenance, Elizabeth Wassell's fifth novel, is all about the art of food. It is also a passionate reflection on the link between good taste and the good life.

Wassell is well placed to mull over the art of being an artist: she shares her life with eminent poet John Montague, the first occupant of the Ireland Chair of Poetry.

She shares with him too a common birthplace -- New York -- and they have homes in the south of France and west Cork. In a former life, she served time as a restaurant critic.

The main character of Sustenance, Lily Murphy, is also a restaurant critic, but in present-day Dublin.

Lily's lover is celebrity chef Nicholas Savage, originally from Belfast; he is less fodder for gossip columns than serious artist.

Food is his discipline, his means of shaping his world, the key to his successful courtship of Lily.

The book reproduces Lily's restaurant reviews, which are interspersed with episodes from her unhappy childhood and her deepening relationship with Nicholas.

They reveal that, for her, eating should be ceremonial, even sacramental.

Lily is an opinionated, forthright reviewer, unwilling to compromise her standards or bow to the pieties of classical cuisine.

Not every purist would accept her views. She rails against green beans and potatoes in a salade niçoise -- its key ingredients; she has no truck with anchovies with lamb, despite renowned chef Carême's famous recipe.

She is also troubled and complex, and only part Irish: all Europe, it seems, has gone into the making of her -- and, of course, she is a New Yorker.

She has her own reasons for seeking order and decorum. Her rampant insecurities have to do with an uncouth, drunken mother and a weakling father, and a home that was neither safe nor aesthetically pleasing.

Then there's her part-Jewishness: in one disturbing scene, a dinner-party in Dublin ends in disarray as seemingly urbane guests indulge in anti-semitic half-truths and lies.

Nicholas consoles her afterwards: 'We're all Jews, Lily, even an Ulster Protestant like me . . . when any one group of us is singled out for harm, we're all of us in danger.'

Nicholas's tribal affiliations come with a heavy undertow of guilt, as do Lily's. Eventually the couple come to share their private, shameful pasts and, with it, an acceptance of self -- whatever its shortcomings -- and a kind of reconciliation.

This is a poetic, thoughtful novel that insists we confront our multiple prejudices.

Mary Shine Thompson

Indo Review