A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #31:-
THE DEVIL’S LARDER
Viking pb, 194pp, price not shown
With the likes of Nigella and Jamie, Gary and Delia dominating the bestseller charts, it seems entirely appropriate that writers of fiction should turn to matters culinary for their material. Jim Crace’s latest book mirrors the oblique structure of his first, Continent, in which a nation was brought to vivid life through a series of interlocking essays on various aspects of its culture. Here we have 64 chapters, each dealing with food, regional recipes and customs, superstition and folklore, which, in the words of the publishers, create a ‘cumulative novel in sixty four parts’ and a ‘patchwork portrait of a community’. I prefer to regard it as a collection of themed stories, and what marvellous stories they are, tasty treats one and all, shot through with warmth and humour and passion, confectionery on which you can gorge and not feel bloated afterwards.
We learn of the infamous Curry No.3, whose ingredients are a mystery, though one fears the worst, of fashionable eatery the Air & Light restaurant, which serves to its chic clientele exactly what it promises, of a rare plant with special qualities that will preserve a marriage, and of blind pie, the serving of which is the ultimate form of revenge. Crace ranges far and wide in his efforts to broaden the menu, into regions that are as startling as they are unexpected, with the darker side of existence always an option.
Time and again we come back to the idea of decay as an essential part of the human process, a theme explored in some depth in his previous book, Being Dead. And like St Augustine, for whom man was conceived between faeces and urine, though not as judgemental, Crace neglects neither the sexual or cloacal items on his bill of fare. The biggest and tastiest vegetables are those grown in human shit and watered with piss. The act of eating becomes not just a substitute for sex, but also an adjunct to the most intimate of acts, with tuberous plants rising out of the ground like rearing phalli and the most tender of fruits stewing in their own succulent juices.
Novel or not, who cares? A brilliant and different book from a writer who, like the best chef in the swankiest restaurant in town, always gives his customers value and yet leaves them wanting more. Forget Nigella, all that domestic goddess crapola, with the charged looks and constant innuendo. The woman’s just a tease, but Crace is the real deal. He may not promise as much, but he delivers far more. Get down to the nearest bookshop and cut yourself a generous slice of the action.