by Gerard Woodward
Gerard Woodward has made life very tough for himself. I'll Go To Bed At Noon, the second book in his trilogy about the Jones family, is quite simply magnificent and should probably have won the Booker Prize in 2004 (there's a baited hook for you). The trilogy as a whole was an incredibly rewarding read for me, set as it is in the area of London I lived in for over a decade. How to follow that success? After the publication of a collection of short stories, Caravan Thieves, comes his latest novel. With the Booker longlist already announced and Woodward's name absent it's tempting to say that he's been a little hard done by once again. Nourishment may not be quite up there with IGTBAN but it is a rewarding, entertaining and surprising read that always feels original thanks to the unique directions in which Woodward is prepared to steer his characters.
Things start with a bang, or in the aftermath of one, with the sternly titled Mrs Head on her errands and greeted by a scene of devastation where the butchers should be. Her fractious relationship with Dando the butcher (this is the era of WWII and rationing after all) cut short by a particularly heavy air-raid. Amongst the rubble she begins to spot remnants of his wares: a rasher of bacon here, a flattened sausage there, and even evidence of the steak that he claimed not to have in stock - a veritable 'tableau of exposed meat' amongst which she spots 'an almost perfect leg of pork' that is swiftly appropriated and taken home for a rare roast dinner. She is living in the house of her daughter, Tory Pace, ostensibly to help out whilst Tory's husband remains a POW and her children evacuated to the safety of the countryside. This opening section leads up to the celebratory dinner on Tory's return from her work at the gelatin factory ('no one denied the importance of gelatin production in the war effort, though no one quite understood it either'), the language licking its lips in anticipation.
Mrs Head inserted the tines of a carving fork into the meat. The crackling crackled, juice bubbled up and flowed down. The knife was put against the roasted skin, a few cautious strokes were made, the sharpened edge moving against the hard skin, which yielded nothing. Then suddenly, with a little pressure, she was through; the skin had broken and the meat was coming away under the knife. With a few strokes a slice had been produced, which flopped to the side, like the page of a book turning.
But Woodward knows how to turn something on its head and it is Tory who voices her concern about tucking in to meat of dubious provenance particularly with Mr Dando still missing. Any author who manages to introduce cannibalism as a comic scene in a wartime drama demands attention and it is just one example of the ways in which he confounds expectation, making light of serious topics so that an impish spirit dictates the novel's tone. Tory is his central character and there are elements that make her an admirable heroine. Having been caught in a kind of limbo whilst awaiting news of her missing husband, a letter in his handwriting finally arrives confirming he is a POW but it is the letter's contents that cause her a real shock.
Tory felt as though she had frozen into a solid lump...the letter hanging in her hand like the shred of a burst balloon...She was experiencing no emotion, apart from a distant sense of panic, such as she sometimes felt on a railway platform when gripped by the absurd thought that the innocent old lady behind her might push her into the path of the express.
Her husband Donald has asked for her to write a dirty letter by return of post, the dirtier the better, a request that shocks, confuses and embarrasses her. Has he lost his mind, been perverted by Nazis, or should she see her compliance simply as part of her wifely duties and his conjugal rights (albeit through the medium of inspected and censored post)? As the title of the novel suggests, Donald appeals for the letters as he might for sustenance, 'I need it as much as I need food and drink and I am a starving man, Tory', playing on Tory's concern and guilt so that he can seem to be a moral man even as he asks for smut 'out of a strong sense that my survival as a man depends on it.' When Tory makes her first tentative attempt, struggling even to compose a sentence that mentions her 'behind' Donald's response is forthright: 'NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!!' Her humiliation now 'official and international' Tory strives to improve but struggles in the face of their own lovemaking, whose memory 'only conjures words like "sweaty, rough, friction, grease"'
She did remember thinking on one of the first occasions that they'd done it, how he treated her like an awkward corner of a room that needed sanding and papering. Examining her closely, brushing her skin with his lips, then blowing, as if to remove shavings, or dust. Then re-examining her, his brows knotted, frowning, as though she was such an awkward, difficult thing. A problem. Then he was sanding her down again, brushing her off.
When she begins a closer relationship with George Farraway, the boss of the gelatin factory it is no surprise where the plot is heading. Donald's constant begging for Tory to be bad 'made it somehow easier for her to actually be bad.' and she feels no guilt as she begins an affair with a man who rather handily likes to talk his way through the act, teaching Tory the language of carnal desire and allowing her to launch 'a spring offensive of sexual narrative'
...she had let him have the whole artillery of sexual expression full in the face, the dirty words falling like dirty bombs square on that little hut in the middle of a German forest.
This might be quite enough to be getting on with you might think but the novel is packed full of plot and incident, much of which happens after Donald returns at the end of the war and Tory has to face up to the legacy of her own wartime experience. What stops the book from tipping over completely into melodrama or soap-opera is a lightness of touch that Woodward employs in two ways. Firstly it allows him, as with the cannibalism, to inject humour where there oughtn't to be any, a bittersweet comedy that encourages us to laugh with complicity even at moments of high drama. But what it also allows him to do is to deceive with lightness, to drop almost silent bombshells, moments of devastation that arrive without warning. One of the novel's more enigmatic characters, their intelligent son Tom, intrigues with his conviction that the home and mother he has returned to are not the originals but impostors.
"Whose to say what governments get up to in wartime?" He said, "We're just pawns, Branson, little pieces in a giant chess game. I bet the government did this all the time, rebuilt the bombed houses, replaced the dead with lookalikes, so the Germans would think their bombs were having no effect, so that neighbours and families weren't demoralized by the loss of neighbourhoods and loved ones... The Germans must have thought their bombs were just swallowed up by the city, as though they'd dropped them into a pool of syrup."
A quick word too about the overarching theme and the novel's title. Woodward looks at various forms of nourishment: the food shortages at home, the parcels sent to prisoners, the dreams of George, who sees the future of food in the pills he has developed as a side project from the rendering of animal carcasses. There is also the spiritual nourishment slyly appropriated by Donald and more accurately represented by Tory's purchase of a typewriter and her work on a fictional account of her experiences. The independence and control she gains from the creation of her fictional alter-ego not only helps to counteract her moral shortcomings but also serves as a weapon in the face of Donald's villainous development (his motivations and eventual use for Tory's letters turn out to be far from honourable). By taking a far more roundabout route Woodward's novel is a greater testament to the power of letter writing than Nicola Barker's recent epistolary novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, was and whilst it might not quite hold water at times anyone already familiar with Woodward's writing will be used to his rug-pulling antics. If you read a more enjoyable novel this year that combines cannibalism, starvation, self-immolation and public conveniences then I won't just be surprised, I'll be expecting you to come back here and tell me what it's called.