‘Blood and organs, cruelty and decay’: that, according to Anthony Bourdain, is what good food is ‘all about’. Two new novels, The Glutton by A K Blakemore and Land of Milk and Honey by C Pam Zhang, make it hard to disagree. Both are portraits of excess, desire and disgust. The first is historical, the second set in a dystopian future. Blakemore’s prose is overripe with muck and depravity while Zhang’s is clinical, with a guarded humour. As with many stories involving food, they share a moralising undertone, but it is when the authors go beyond allegory, to conjure real worlds and believable, palpable characters, that they excel.
Blakemore’s first novel, The Manningtree Witches, was an earthy, sickly tale of the 17th-century Essex witch trials. The Glutton takes that pungent strain of historical fiction to an extreme. It recounts the life of Tarare, a real French peasant and showman who lived in the last decades of the 18th century. Unusually for a peasant, a record of his life has been passed down through rumours, memoirs and medical reports, those three things often congealing into one. What we know of Tarare – admittedly not much; the majority of Blakemore’s novel is invented, and brilliantly so – is that he ate inhuman quantities of food, as well as cutlery, corks, a small child, a horse… (the list, whether accurate or not, goes on). He died locked up and under medical observation in 1798, having left his village near Lyon to join a travelling circus and then the army. His life provides the basis for a galloping plot, resulting in a novel much like Patrick Süskind’s Perfume.
The Glutton has two timeframes: scenes depicting Tarare on his deathbed (aged only twenty-six), accompanied by Sister Perpetué, a quavering but curious nun, alternate with his life story. It’s an effective marrying of the sacred and the profane. Even in the midst of unpleasantness, The Glutton provides mischievous fun.