by Pauline Masurel
The Devil’s Larder
is stocked with stories that are wicked rather than just plain evil.
It’s a tasty hamper, jam-packed with sixty-four tiny stories on food
themes, which are also metaphors for the very stuff of life itself.
Crab apples have "the flavours of deceit" with "malicious impact in my
mouth….the kiss of lovers from opposing villages." Thrill-seeking
diners head up into the hills to "the dark side of ourselves, the
hungry side that knows no boundaries" to eat who-knows-what in Curry
No. 3. Boysie
tart is "the
taste of those dishonoured
resolutions that have left their marks throughout the house, those
perfidies that have the gift of ageing cheese, and souring yeast, and
shriveling the plums and grapes and putrefying meat." Unknown,
possibilities abound in an unlabelled tin: "We
all should have
like this. Let it rust. Let the rims turn rough and brown. Lift it up
and shake it if you want. Shake its sweetness or its bitterness….The
brine, the soup, the oil, the sauce. The heaviness. The choice is
wounding it with knives, or never touching it again."
Crace has called
Larder a ‘cumulative novel’, although that’s open to
debate. Certainly, these stories stand up on their own when read
individually, and direct connections between them are few and far
between. Five stories were originally published in 1995 as a ‘Penguin
60’ entitled The Slow
Digestions of the Night. There are plenty of
imaginary foodstuffs in this collection, such as the humour-inducing
euphrosyne, ardour-eliminating manac beans, shoals of tad and the
love-leaf tree. Crace is a master of fictional facts. The book’s
opening aphorism "There
are no bitter fruits in heaven. Nor is
honey in the Devil’s larder." is
taken from Visitations 7:1…and if you
believe that then you’ll probably believe all the stories in this book
are true. However, the opening "quotations" aren’t the shortest pieces
of fiction to be found within these pages; the final story is just two
all of the stories are tricksy or allegorical. One
about the waiters at The Whistling Chop has a classic feel to its plot
and telling that wouldn’t be out of place in a cautionary tale by Saki. "If
the gentlemen had required dirty fingers in their meal, they would
have ordered them. And had they wanted you to join them here for
dinner, they would have had a card delivered to your home". One
gentle tale contrasting the diet of a concierge’s holiday romance with
more regular comfort eating with the janitor. A few of the stories are
fairly slight and inconsequential. They’re sorbets between courses,
vignettes you can down in a mouthful, such as the one about a man who
can recite the A-Z of pasta or a paean to the remains of last year’s
The stories include ritual, informal, communal and solo meals, not to
mention "three cases of sexually transmitted indigestion". There is
also hunger. Most of the stories have a certain darkness in the mix.
Food is often still closely associated with the earth or water in which
it grows. The collection is seasoned throughout with Crace’s love of
language and measured rhythm of delivery. A "collection of kumquats"
seems chosen for the delight in its sound. Brandied aubergines are
"oily, cold, lascivious" and mussels become "blue-black
a wonderful variety of characters: the hippie baker with flour
in his hair, the refugee providing room service whose grasp of English
is limited to the language of food, Rosa the frigid bride on her
hunter-gatherer honeymoon, and a family so poor that they are reduced
to sharing eggs and dreaming of ranging free. A couple becalmed at sea
are no shores. There are no rescue boats. No rain."--
forced to choose between their own body fluids and certain death by
salt water. Children fed on cigarettes "waited
free, and hit the stony ground, and burst."
book teaches many
useful lessons about food and life, such as "You
can’t eat grief. It’s
far too strong and indigestible…You have to let the sorrow swallow
you" and "Pain
is fine if it’s been earned by boozing." The
delights of playing strip fondue are also illuminated: "Hot
law unto itself. Its strings and globules have scant regard for the
principles of adhesion. It worships gravity." Shoe
stew proves that "men
and women can develop a taste for almost anything, if the circumstances
so prescribe.’ "
can’t help wishing that the individual stories had titles rather than
being nameless like chapters. But having to order the dishes by number
is a minor disadvantage when the menu is this good. Buy the book for
its mouth-watering food porn cover and savour its illicit ingredients.
lives and dines in the South West of England. One of her own bite-sized
stories was runner up in the 2008 Leaf Books Micro-fiction Competition
and is title story in their forthcoming collection, Discovering a Comet
and More Micro-Fiction.
Crace was brought up in London and lives in Birmingham. His
collection of connected stories, Continent,
won the Whitbread First Novel prize and his novels Quarantine and Being Dead were
shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
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Publisher's Website: Penguin
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