short story collections step into the
find something to read by:

The Devil's Larder

Jim Crace

Life is uncertain. Eat the pudding first."

Reviewed 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, untried possibilities abound in an unlabelled tin:  "We all should have a can 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 The Devil’s 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 there 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 words long. 

Not 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 is a 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 picnic. 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 castanets". 

There’s 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 -- "There are no shores. There are no rescue boats. No rain."-- are forced to choose between their own body fluids and certain death by salt water. Children fed on cigarettes "waited while…appetites fell free, and hit the stony ground, and burst."

This 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 dangers and delights of playing strip fondue are also illuminated: "Hot cheese is…a 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.’ "

I 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.

Pauline Masurel 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.

Pauline's other Short Reviews: Mark Budman, Tom Hazuka (eds) "You Have Time for This"

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

Carson McCullers "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe"   

Jeffrey Eugenides (ed) "My Mistress' Sparrow is Dead" 


Publication Date: 2002

Paperback/Hardback? Paperback

First collection?No

Author bio: Jim 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.

Buy this book (used or new) from:

The Publisher's Website: Penguin





And...don't forget your local booksellers and independent book shops! Visit  IndieBound.org to find an independent bookstore near you in the US

If you liked this book you might also like....

Jim Crace "Continent"

Italo Calvino "Invisible Cities"

Margaret Atwood "The Tent"

What other reviewers thought:

NY Times

The Observer

Book Reporter

Book Page