I’m an assiduous viewer of Channel 4 News – I’d probably be a happier person if I wasn’t – and have often wondered how it feels to report on the dreadful mess of human misery that is war. I’ve thought the same when looking at those stark images you see in newspapers, some becoming emblematic of particular conflicts. The moral dilemma of bearing witness as opposed to getting stuck in and helping those in distress is an eternal conundrum. And what does it do to those who make it their life’s work? These are the themes that Catherine Hall explores in her moving and thought-provoking novel.
It begins with Jo’s narrative addressed to her ex-lover, Susie. Jo has just returned from Afghanistan, taking refuge in her Aunt Edith’s Brighton flat, now hers since Edith’s death a few weeks ago. She’s in a state of shock, in desperate need of unburdening herself. This has been her second stint in the country. The first was a decade ago, just after 9/11. There have been many wars in between her two visits, many atrocities witnessed, but this time the horror was more personal. Not entirely sure why she had decided to return, Jo settled on a set of photographs about the commonplace domestic violence dealt out to women by their husbands and male relatives in the name of honour, enlisting the help of Rashida freshly graduated from her journalism course. Things did not end well. To distract herself, Jo reads the diary she finds tucked away in her aunt’s desk. It’s the journal of Elizabeth Willoughby who worked alongside the medical staff at Brighton Pavilion where Indian Army casualties were cared for during the First World War, well away from their white British comrades.
It’s a far from uncommon device to have a character stumble across a diary written long ago, then alternate its contents with a present day narrative. It can often be horribly clunky – the worst example I can think of is Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong – but if done well each can illuminate the other, and Hall manages this beautifully. The strictures on the behaviour of women in Afghanistan are echoed in the forbidding of Elizabeth from nursing Indian soldiers thereby compromising her reputation. Her fiancé’s – to our eyes – obvious shell shock is echoed in the nightmares in which the many atrocities Jo has seen are re-enacted. Historical context is lightly delivered, deftly wrapped into both narratives. Hall’s exploration of the morality of war photography and its effects on those who practice it are vivid and immediate. All this is achieved in an intensely involving story – moving, poignant and often surprising. It’s a novel which succeeds in treating a deadly serious subject in a gripping, humane and thoroughly engrossing way. I’m looking forward to seeing what Hall does next.
Purely coincidentally, I’ve been reading N. M. Kelby’s White Truffles in Winter about the last days of the celebrated chef Escoffier alongside Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, set in pre-Revolutionary France. Both are about Frenchmen with a passion for food who love and admire women, both have recipes scattered through them and both men are looking back over eventful lives at a crucial point in history. Kelby’s novel is an affectionate portrayal of a man dedicated to the pursuit of perfection but who knows how to make chicken taste like sole when the fishmonger fails to turn up. At the end of his life, his wife desperate to have a dish named after her before she dies, Escoffier is still obsessed with Sarah Bernhardt with whom he has enjoyed a long intimacy, willing to teach the sassy Sabine how to cook for the resemblance she bares to Bernhardt alone. Not yet finished it but I’m enjoying it very much.
Escoffier and Jonathan Grimwood’s Jean-Marie d’Aumout would have had much to talk about. We first meet the five-year-old Jean-Marie in 1723: he is enthusiastically eating stag beetles, analysing their taste and describing it to himself. Orphaned, he is rescued by the Duc d’Orléans who introduces him to the delights of Roquefort and sets him on a path which takes him to the military academy where he meets friends who will remain influential in his life, and in the world, then marries twice for love – once to a noblewoman he rescues from a wolf, once to a peasant – becomes Manager of the Menagerie for Louis XV, negotiates with Pasquale Pauli on the eve of the Corsican war for independence and is take prisoner, then retires to his chateau where he treats his workers well and pursues his scientific and culinary curiosty, always attended by Tigris, the blind tiger he has reared from a cub. For Jean-Marie, the whole world’s a pantry and continues to be so throughout his long life during which he consumes an astonishing variety of things, from flamingo’s tongues to well, you’ll have to read it to find out what the last banquet is. He is the embodiment of Enlightenment values – he corresponds with Voltaire and writes the Corsican entry for Diderot’s encyclopedia, he is a deist fascinated by science and his enlightened ideas extend to the way he runs his estate. Having followed the trajectory of the Age of Reason the novel ends in 1790, the year after the Revolution began. Vibrantly original, filled with vividly descriptive passages and with a brilliantly playful cover, The Last Banquet rivals The President’s Hat as my best read of 2013 so far.
Given that the excellent Canongate are Jonathan Grimwood’s publishers it seems appropriate to wish them a happy fortieth birthday. Lots of celebrations planned throughout the rest of the year, apparently, and they’re on the look out for the next generation of storytellers working across all media, from books to film and games – find out more here. You have to be Scottish, though.
I’m not sure how much notice most readers take of publishers or their imprints when choosing a book but here’s one well worth watching out for: Alma Books are one of my favourite publishers. They’re a small press and their list isn’t long but each book is well chosen and always worth a look. When I was a reviews editor for print magazines I never had enough room to include everything published by them that I wanted to but that’s the beauty of the web: infinite space. Published last week, Roland Watson-Grant’s Sketcher is the latest Alma title to catch my eye. It’s a debut novel narrated by Skid Beaumont who lives with his family in a one room shack in swamp lands just outside New Orleans. The novel opens when Skid is nine years old and follows the trials and colourful tribulations of his family up until their departure seven years later. Skid is smart and sassy, recounting what he sees in a wonderfully vibrant voice. His father, a radio and TV repairman, has lured his mother out of the city with tales of a glorious vision filled with colour and beauty when what he’s actually after is a stake in the swamp’s natural gas. Four sons and several years later, Valerie is disenchanted, has exchanged her belief in the spirit world for God and is determined that Skid steers clear of any magical shenanigans. Skid has other ideas. Having become convinced that his brother Frico has only to draw something for it to become real, he sees a way out of the swamp and in to the bright lights of New Orleans. Skid is a funny and engaging narrator, so intrigued with magic that he sees it everywhere and has you wondering just what the author wants his readers to believe until he stumbles upon a rational explanation, although some things are left for us to decide, just as they should be. The novel’s packed with incident from earthquakes to gangster shootouts and runs the gamut from comedy to tragedy while managing to steer clear of the problems inherent in using a child narrator. As usual, Alma have picked well. Sketcher is an excellent debut and I hope it reaches a wide audience