Author, Book review, Fiction, Granta, literary fiction, Publisher, Romesh Gunesekera, Setting, Sri Lanka

‘Reef’ by Romesh Gunesekera


Fiction – paperback; Granta Books; 190 pages; 1995.

Romesh Gunesekera’s Reef, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 1994, is a rather beautiful and occasionally heartbreaking coming-of-age story set in Sri Lanka before the civil war.

It’s 1962 and 11-year-old Triton, the narrator, is sent away by his father after he accidentally burns the thatch of a schoolyard hut. He goes to live with Mister Salgado, a hunch-backed, quietly spoken marine biologist who is studying coral reefs, and here, under the care of the main help, Joseph, he is taught all manner of household chores.

When Joseph is dismissed from the household for being drunk, Triton is elevated to being the master’s main boy, something that fills him with immense pride. The story largely follows his efforts to fit in, the lessons he learns along the way and how he comes to love cooking and become exceptionally good at it.

Coming-of-age story

Reef is told from the perspective of Triton as an adult looking back on his somewhat unusual childhood. Though he was essentially a young slave, he isn’t bitter about the experience, probably because he is treated well and with respect. Indeed, he feels a great deal of warmth, love and gratitude towards Mister Salgado, who becomes a substitute father figure. It is through the retelling of his childhood experiences that we come to learn how this fondness — and mutual respect — developed.

The key to this is a love affair that Mister Salgado conducts with Nili, a young woman, in the late 1960s. Triton witnesses it at close quarters and does his utmost to ensure Nili is wooed successfully, because he wants his master to be happy.

Before Miss Nili first came to our house on the poya-holiday of April 1969, Mister Salgado only said to me, ‘A lady is coming to tea.’ As if a lady came to tea every week. It had never happened before in his life, or mine, and yet he acted as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Luckily he gave me some warning. He was concerned to make sure there was plenty of time to prepare, even though he acted so nonchalant. I made everything: little coconut cakes — kavum — patties, egg sandwiches, ham sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, even love-cake… I made enough for a horse. It was just as well: she ate like a horse.

Nili eventually moves in with Mister Salgado — they do not marry, bucking society’s conventions at that time — but the relationship doesn’t run smoothly. One day Nili leaves in a fit of fury to go and take up with another man, an American, that Mister Salgado knows.

Mister Salgado is heartbroken and seems to lose interest in most things. But this is merely a metaphor for other forces at work — there’s trouble brewing, politically and socially, and even Mister Salgado’s beloved coral reefs are coming under threat from development and pollution. Eventually he leaves Sri Lanka, for London, taking Triton with him, where he accepts a university posting.

A tropical paradise

This is a prime example of a book that doesn’t have much of a plot but which excels at drawing you in to an unfamiliar world peopled by interesting characters.

There’s an aching kind of quality about it as it follows Triton chasing his dream to be a chef while another man — his boss — loses his dream to create a marine sanctuary.

It’s written from a relatively naive point of view — there’s no sex in it, but food is seen as “the ultimate seducer” (interestingly, Nili eats greedily; Mister Salgado barely eats at all) — which reflects the mindset of a young boy.

But it is the descriptions of a paradise (under threat) — and lots of lovely food — which really makes this book such a delicious read:

When I looked up again I would glimpse the seas between the trees bathed in a mulled gold light. The colour of it, the roar of it, was overwhelming. It was like living inside a conch: the endless pounding.

And it’s hard not to fall a little bit in love with Triton, who is diligent, self-motivated, hard working and shows initiative. You want him to succeed because he truly deserves it. And you want him to be happy, too.

I’m not going to spoil the outcome by revealing it here, but let’s just say that Reef is a rewarding read. It’s elegant but also hugely powerful, and I came away from it feeling as though I’d spent some time in (a troubled) paradise. Despite it’s brevity, this is a novel to read slowly, to savour every word and to revel in the beauty of Gunesekera’s languid storytelling.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, Books in translation, crime/thriller, Fiction, Herman Koch, Holland/Netherlands, literary fiction, Setting

‘The Dinner’ by Herman Koch


Fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 311 pages; 2012. Translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett.

Appearances can be deceptive and so it is with Herman Koch’s rather dark and delicious novel, The Dinner, which looks like a simple story that unfolds over the course of a family dinner, but which turns out to be so much more than that.

A five-course menu

The book, which is set in Amsterdam, is divided into five parts — Aperitif, Appetiser, Main Course, Dessert, and Digestif — across 46 relatively short chapters. As you might expect from its title and the naming convention of the sections, it’s set in a restaurant — one of those fancy, upmarket nouvelle cuisine type restaurants, where there is more white plate on show than food. Or, as our often witty and slightly sneering narrator puts it when his wife’s appetiser arrives:

The first thing that struck you about Claire’s plate was its vast emptiness. Of course I’m well aware that, in the better restaurants, quality takes precedence over quantity, but there are voids and then there are voids. The void here, that part of the plate on which no food at all was present, had clearly been raised to a matter of principle.

Over the course of the meal, we become familiar with the two couples sitting around the table, each of whom has a 15-year-old son. There’s an undeniable tension between them from the start, mainly because the narrator, Paul Lohman, and his wife, Claire, would have much preferred to eat in a more down-to-earth establishment, a local café, but they have already agreed to meet Serge and his wife, Babette, at the fancy restaurant because that’s the kind of place they like to eat at.

Serge, it turns out, is not only pretentious and a bit of a wine snob — “all this I-know-everything-about-wine business irritated the hell out of me” — he’s a renowned (and popular) politician. In fact, he’s the leader of the Opposition in Holland and is expected to be the country’s next Prime Minister.

But there’s more to this initial tension than mild envy: it turns out to be a ferocious — and unspoken — clash between parenting values, because their teenage sons have committed a rather horrendous crime and each couple wants to deal with it in a different way. The subject, however, isn’t one that can readily be discussed over pink champagne and goat’s cheese salad…

An unexpected and compelling read

I have to say that I didn’t quite know what to expect from The Dinner, but it turned out to be a highly original, often uncomfortable and totally compelling read, by far the most unusual book I’ve read in a long while. It’s not quite a black comedy, but I did laugh a lot, mainly at the narrator’s sneering, judgemental tone and witty one-liners. The further I got into the story, however, the more my laughter simply felt wrong, because this is the kind of book that tilts your whole axis and tests your empathy for certain characters to the absolute limit.

It’s a hugely entertaining read, but there’s a lot of social commentary here, some of which is clearly tongue-in-cheek — for example, the whole pretentiousness of Western cuisine and food writing — and most of which is not. I’d like to use the term “hard-hitting” to describe it, but that’s too overused — a cliché if you will —  and it doesn’t quite convey the creeping sense of unease I felt as I got closer and closer to the ending.

The Dinner is a disturbing morality tale of the finest order, the kind of novel that makes you marvel at the writer’s ingenuous plot, filled as it is with unexpected turns and eye-opening revelations, all carefully structured and perfectly paced to keep the reader on tenterhooks throughout — think Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but less showy and more intelligent. It’s bold, daring and shocking, but it’s also bloody good fun.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, general, Natalie Young, Setting, Tinder Press

‘Season to Taste / How to Eat Your Husband’ by Natalie Young

Season to taste

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 288 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I do like a dark, disturbing novel, especially when the protagonist is guilty of a horrendous crime and tries to get away with it, so when I heard about Natalie Young’s Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband it seemed right up my street.

A set of spoof recipe cards sent to me prior to the book’s release served to heighten my interest, so by the time I’d received a proof in the mail I was dying — pun fully intended — to read it.

Alas, this is a classic case of a book not quite meeting my over-inflated expectations. Indeed, I’m struggling to comprehend all the hype around its publication, which I can only assume is based more on the stomach-churning subject matter — cannibalism — than the story itself, but others may beg to differ.

An intriguing premise

Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband tells the story of Lizzie Prain, billed as an ordinary housewife, who murders her husband in the garden by caving his head in with the back of a spade.

To dispose of the body, she comes up with a rather unique solution: she butchers him into component body parts, bags these up, pops them in the freezer and then over the course of the entire novel eats him piece by piece.

To make the meat palatable, she concocts various recipes, thereby turning her late husband into an extended gourmet meal, which she expects will last a month. All the while, she’s conscious that once she’s eaten Jacob, she will be free to move to Scotland and live the life she’s always wanted to lead.

Sounds intriguing, if slightly sickening, doesn’t it? But that’s basically where the intrigue ends, because not much else happens in this book. The story really is as basic as Lizzie killing her husband and then turning cannibal to get rid of the evidence.

A dull protagonist

My problem with Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband does not lie in the flat, emotionless prose style, which I quite liked, nor in its structure, told in part by Tom, one of Lizzie’s neighbours, and dotted with Lizzie’s own notes to herself (“81. Your husband’s flesh will now be in your mouth and oesophagus, your gullet, stomach and intestines.”) And I’m not too fussed that we never find out Lizzie’s real motivations for killing her husband, although there are hints he was controlling and she was co-dependent.

My problem lies in the relentless descriptions of cannibalism — a reader can only tolerate so many macabre pages of cooking and eating body parts before they begin to feel ill — and the overwhelming dullness of the lead character.

Indeed, part-way through this novel I began to wonder if Lizzie might be slightly dim-witted or perhaps have a learning disability, because she was just so dreary and uninteresting. Instead of wanting to cheer her on — aka Tom Ripley in Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley or Matt in Henry Sutton’s Get Me Out of Here — I found myself simply not caring about her.

And the meaning is… ?

Of course, reading a novel like this I couldn’t help but try to figure out what the author was trying to say about Lizzie. Was there a deeper meaning to all this butchery and blood and gruesomeness? The blurb on my proof copy bills it as a novel about the end of a marriage, but it’s not really about a marriage at all, because we only ever see things through Lizzie’s eyes and Jacob feels too one-dimensional for the reader to take any pleasure in his demise.

My theory is that the story is a metaphor for creativity, because one of Jacob’s criticisms of Lizzie is that she lacks imagination. What better way, then, to show him he’s wrong than to use all her creative faculties to get rid of his body by cooking and eating him? That, I dare say, shows one hell of an imagination!

That said, I found Season to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband a hugely disappointing read, far too gruesome and grim for my liking, with nary a chink of humour to lighten the mood. No matter how cruel and unusual the method of body disposal, when all is said and done an ordinary woman killing her ordinary husband really does make for an ordinary story…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Quercus, satire, Setting, Wayne Macauley

‘The Cook’ by Wayne Macauley


Fiction – hardcover; Quercus; 304 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I thought the Brits were obsessed with cooking shows and celebrity chefs, until I got sucked into watching MasterChef Australia on satellite TV last year.  The series, which is based on the original British MasterChef but is 100 times more sensational and loud and bombastic, was screened six nights a week for several months and turned cooking into an Olympic-like sport. It was so over-the-top ridiculous (and puffed-up) that most of the time I watched it so that I could take the mickey out of the contestants rather than because I wanted to learn about fine dining.

So it’s no surprise that it took an Australian author to prick the bubble of pretentiousness which surrounds “celebrity” cooking and the entire “foodie” industry. But Wayne Macauley‘s The Cook is more than just a brilliant satire, it’s a viciously funny black comedy with an oh-my-goodness-I-didn’t-see-that-coming shock ending.

Learning to become a chef

The story is narrated by 17-year-old Zac, a young criminal who is given a choice: he can go to a young offender’s institute or enrol in a rehabilitation scheme that teaches teenagers how to cook. (Think Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen apprentice programme, which was turned into a television show about ten years ago.)

Zac chooses to go to the cooking school, which is presided over by a rich and glamorous Head Chef, who is rarely seen (if this book was turned into a film, Head Chef would probably be played by Gordon Ramsay). The students are taught to “do restaurant food top-class top-shelf” by Sous Chef Fabian, a hard-working but rather stressed out character, with a heavy emphasis on provenance (they grow their own fruit, vegetables and meat) and French gastronomy.

Zac discovers that he is rather natural cook and becomes slightly obsessive about food and goes to extraordinary lengths to raise lambs (and later ducks) that taste exceptionally delicious based on the kinds of food that they are fed and the ways in which they are slaughtered. He becomes so good at cooking that he is offered a job as a private chef before he finishes the course — and so that is how he ends up working for a rather rich family “in one of the best suburbs of Melbourne”.

The Cook is essentially a book of two halves: the first is all about Zac’s time at cooking school; the second follows his exploits living with and working for middle-aged housewife Deidre Fletcher — “but you must call me Mistress” — her rich husband and their two spoilt teenage daughters, Melody and Jade. It is while working as the Fletcher’s private chef that Zac begins to dream big — all his experience, hard work, passion and drive is one route towards getting his own restaurant sometime in the future.

A compelling voice

The most interesting thing about this novel is the narrator’s voice, which is honest and intimate. It’s also semi-literate, because the book is written without the use of commas. This can take some getting used to, but once you find the rhythm this is an exceptionally clever literary device because you immediately assume that Zac’s not the sharpest tool in the box and feel some empathy towards him. And because he is prepared to work hard to get what he wants, this endears him to you even more. It’s only later that you begin to wonder if he might not have taken his obsession just a step too far.

Much of the book is laugh out loud funny. I really loved the way it pokes fun, tongue-in-cheek style at the way restaurant food is described grandiose-style on TV and in the press. And Macauley’s commentary on the restaurant business, in which the chefs are there merely to serve rich people who can afford expensive gourmet meals, seems to be exceptionally biting — and probably accurate.

I found the entire tale deliciously dark and subversive and on more than one occasion I was reminded of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin, which treads similar territory. The Cook is a deeply unsettling read but it’s a thrilling one, too, and the ending came as quite a shock. I know that I will be thinking about it for a long time to come — and I’ll probably never look at an episode of MasterChef in quite the same way again.

For another take on this novel, please visit Jackie’s review at Farmlane Books.

Note that this book is yet to be published in the USA, although an ebook version is available.