In Search of Strange Tastes
Jonathan Grimwood’s well written novel rather does for gustation what Patrick Suskind’s Perfume did for olfaction.
Starting in pre-revolutionary France, in the late 1720s, the first person narrative follows the fortunes of the small, starving, orphan son of an impoverished member of the aristocracy, as he looks back on his life from the tail end of that century, with the Jacobin revolutionaries storming the gates of power.
Our hero, Jean-Marie d’Aumout is a man given to natural philosophy, a thinker, with an analytical mind and an obsession with the taste of all manner of things, both the divine and the disgusting. In fact, he doesn’t distinguish between the two, but wishes to taste all there is to taste. At times, this takes the book into some very dark places.
Aumout is portrayed as an enlightened aristocrat, though the early part of the book conveys the peasantry as little different from dumb animals (and that thinking indeed sowed the seeds of revolution) Interspersed with recipes for all sorts of food – how to cook rat, loris, tiger – with most recipes ending with the world weary ‘tastes like chicken’ Aumout also goes through a process of deepening thoughtfulness and understanding about class and politics
It is also a book about the value of friendship, and a love story, albeit a rather unusual one.
I had a couple of moments where a question arose about the truth of character – without creating spoilers, there is a sequence before a section about Corsica in which I felt that it was perhaps the author seeking again to shock the reader rather than the real journey of the character.
This is certainly not a book for those with delicate stomachs, and there are some quite graphic sexual descriptions. Some of these (and indeed some of the later part of the novel) seemed to inhabit a sensibility which was a little too modern, but for the most part, felt within the time where droit de seigneur, and aristocratic rule, was absolute
The other book which began to snag at me, for the sense of pervasive decadent world-weariness, and the desire for stronger stimulation to awaken satiated senses, was the similarly set, marvellous A Rebours, (Against Nature) by Huysmans – which was the ‘forbidden’ book which corrupted Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and was a late nineteenth century shocker
I will look out for more books by this author. This one was received as an ARC in digital form from the publishers, via NetGalley
Grimwood has made me want to re-read all the above mentioned books – a prospect of shocking and decadent satiation! All these books (including Grimwood’s) shock us out of complacency, and, despite some stomach turning moments, provoke thought.
However, I won’t be trying any of the recipes in the book!
The advance publicity has compared this, not only to the Suskind book, but also to Andrew Miller’s Pure. For once, the recommendations are entirely accurate, not just with regard to the subject matter, but more importantly, to the quality of the writing. Like those writers and their books, Grimwood is clear, disciplined, educative and a master of plot, characterisation, research and ideas. I do believe that anyone who values those books, will not be disappointed with this one
I think the UK publishers deserve thumbs up for a far more evocative, apposite and suitably disturbing cover than the rather bland jacket thought suitable for the States
UK readers will only have a month to wait for release (July), alas, Statesiders, your appetite must stay hungry till October