September 9, 2010

Gerard Woodward: Nourishment

Posted in Woodward Gerard at 8:00 am by John Self

Gerard Woodward is categorised in my mind as the author who surely would have won the Booker Prize in 2004 if his brilliant novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon hadn’t been up against such a strong field, including Colm Tóibín’s The Master, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and the eventual winner, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty. It was the second in a series, and now, after completing the Jones family saga with A Curious Earth, Woodward has braved the creation of a whole new fictional world.

Nourishment, however, doesn’t initially seem to stray too far from Woodward’s comfort zone. It is set in 20th century England, is a family story and peopled by one-and-a-half vivid female characters – but do Mrs Head and her daughter Tory have the staying power of Colette Jones?

The period is the second world war, when Victoria ‘Tory’ Pace is alone in London: working in a gelatin factory, with her children evacuated and her husband missing in action presumed dead. As if things weren’t bad enough, her widowed mother decides to come to live with her for the duration, “possessed of an unshakeable belief that her daughter, and London generally, needed her.” But troubles aside, Tory feels that life during wartime is not quite as interesting as it might be. She receives offputting letters from her children (“We are very sorry that father is dead, but we doubt he would have wanted to be part of a world like the one that is taking shape around us”) and struggles to think of anything to tell them in return.

Dear Mama

I refer you to your letter dated 16-1-41, in which you tell us about your work in Farraway’s Gelatin Factory. Your most recent letter (21-3-41) repeats a lot of this information. There is really little point in writing to us unless you have something new to tell.

I have bought a new magnifying glass.

Yours sincerely

Tom

The presumption that Tory’s husband Donald is dead irks her mother, Mrs Head. “She dreaded the thought of her daughter becoming a widow – it was a role she cherished for herself alone.” Good news then, when a long-delayed letter from Donald arrives: he has been captured and is being held as a prisoner of war. Mrs Head is pleased – “dead he was rather a disgrace, but captured – that meant there might still be a chance for her family to distinguish itself in the war effort” – and so is Tory, until she gets to the end of his letter (which I reveal here only because the book’s blurb outlines it generally):

Nothing else troubles me apart from not being able to pull your knickers down and give you a good fuck. Instead, could you write me a dirty letter, by return of post? I mean really filthy, full of all the dirtiest words and deeds you can think of? I require this most urgently.

Love to your Ma

Donald

In that paragraph, in essence, are the two qualities that distinguish Nourishment: it is continually surprising and frequently funny, and often both at the same time. At times the welter of bizarre developments seems mad, covering protein pills, robots, novels written in public toilets, putative cannibalism, and more.

The first half passes slowly (but reads quickly) and gives time for every development in Tory’s character to seem plausible. (“[Donald's] implorations for her to be bad made it somehow easier for her to actually be bad.”) This makes it strange when the second half, the post-war years, seems so hasty, with time passing in sudden spurts, and the reader’s pace needing to alter to make the eye-opening developments (some detailed above) seem like the product of a brilliant mind rather than a fevered brain. There are so many moments like this – bouleversé on one page, bingo! on the next – that the novel acquires an almost subversive character, the comedy of the first half less sustained and so all the more discomfiting when it peeks up rudely amid the soap and tragedy of the second.

There was a blue plaque on the first floor of the building above that, according to Harry Wilde, commemorated E.M. Forster getting his leg over, and that was enough to convince themselves that they were now part of literary London.

Much of Nourishment subverts what we might expect from a wartime story. Some consists of what we might call expected surprises, the nuts and bolts of fiction, such as the children’s disappointment when they return home from their evacuation (“‘Is that man our father?’ said Albertina”). Elsewhere, the approaches are more subtle: the correspondence drawn between food and sex are clever and unexpected, providing a story of appetites poorly catered for in wartime, and how they shrink back or swell up to change their owners. There is an unsettling but satisfying comic treatment of developments of the day.

“Well,” said Mrs Head, thoughtfully, “I’ve heard quite good things about lobotomies. Mrs Lippiatt’s brother-in-law had one. She said he used to smash the furniture, but now he just sits in his chair all day, looking at his parakeet, quiet as a mouse.”

The tone is striking, even unique (though it does at times resemble a lighter, fruitier version of the Jones books). Within its seemingly gentle form, it takes risks: a quality I value increasingly above others. What this means is that Nourishment could never be mistaken, or muddled in the memory, for any other book. It succeeds because it is quite unlike anything I’ve read before, and I loved it for that.

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19 Comments »

  1. Linda Grant said,

    Now I’m sorry I gave you the proof.

  2. leemonks said,

    It should be on the Not The Booker list!

  3. samjordison said,

    Yes it should! Reading this makes me regret that it isn’t all the more… Oh well, hopefully I’ll enjoy reading the Cuckoo Boy and co. Hopefully…

  4. Lovely stuff. Yes, it should indeed be on Not The Booker! Nourishment is also our book of the month on picador.com, so hop over and take a look at some of the bits and pieces we’ve got there – I’d love your feedback!

    Great review, John, glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.

    Mike.

  5. It is indeed a surprising read, so much so that my review (up next week) will be using exactly the same word to describe it! Such an enjoyable book and it would be great to see it on the Not The Booker list but having only been published a matter of days ago it’s not surprising it didn’t gather up enough votes, there can’t be many who’ve finished it yet.

  6. Your review convinces me that I should save this one for when I want a book that I know I will love. It will be my introduction to Woodward and I look forward to it immensely.

  7. Linda Grant said,

    Dear Mike (from Picador)

    I gave John self the proof copy you sent me and while this has been a good result from your point of view, reading this I now wish I’d hung onto it, so why don’t you send me another copy?

    signed

    a person who gets more proofs than they know what to do with so gives most away

  8. John Self said,

    I’d send it back Linda but proofs always end up so dog-eared and scruffy that I chuck them in the recycling.

    Kevin, yes and no. I do think that if this had been my first Woodward, I might have been scratching my head more and less likely to give the surprising – one newspaper called it silly – aspects the benefit of the doubt. So tread with care, but it’s a book bursting with personality for sure.

  9. Steph said,

    I have to admit, I’ve never even heard of this book or this author but your review has definitely piqued my interest. In particular, I was struck by the fact that you felt the book was truly one-of-a-kind, which is certainly a remarkable feat when you consider the necessary overlaps in contemporary fiction. I’m always excited to discover new authors who can toy with my preconceptions of what a book can and can’t do.

  10. winstonsdad said,

    i remember the 2004 book getting good reviews ,and heard you rave about this one on twitter ,suprised it didn’t make booker ,seems a well thought out novel ,I enjoy books set in or around ww2 and seemed to have read quite a lot this year myself ,great review ,all the best stu ps anything would been better than line of winning .

  11. Kris (also Picador) said,

    Dear Linda

    I’m the editorial assistant at Picador and I’d be happy to send you a copy.

    Let me have your address: k.doyle@macmillan.co.uk

  12. Maylin said,

    I just got my copy from the UK – I love Gerald Woodward and have read his whole Jones trilogy. To date, I rank the ending of a A Curious Earth as one of my favourites of all time, because yes, as you point out, he just does surprising things that have your emotions see-sawing from one extreme to another, sometimes in the same sentence. I cracked up just reading the jacket copy of this book when I was ordering it – the plot just sounded so delicious. I’m really glad to hear it lives up to expectations.

  13. John Self said,

    I hope you like it, Maylin. I must confess here that I have still not read A Curious Earth – I’ve been saving it – so I’m pleased that you didn’t reveal details of it!

  14. Will said,

    Finished this a couple days ago and, remembering a comment you made on the Booker site, thought I might find a review by you. Glad I did – you did an excellent job, John.

    This novel was my introduction to Woodward and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was filled with the unexpected; was delightfully surprising. My only complaint was that I felt it wrapped-up and fizzled out rather quickly in the last pages. Perhaps I was enjoying myself so much I simply wasn’t ready for it to end? So a minor complaint on my part…but, overall, I completely agree with your praise. Again, great review.

  15. John Self said,

    I’m glad you liked the book too, Will – and welcome to my blog! Thanks for your comment.

  16. Tom C said,

    I thought the Jones trilogy was excellent but was sadly disappointed with Nourishment, finding it lacking in depth, although perhaps a good enough story in itself. I enjoyed your review however which shows how serious readers can differ so much in their likes and dislikes.

  17. Linda Grant said,

    I like this novel a lot. It’s wholly unpredictable.

  18. John Self said,

    Isn’t it? I do think it’s a book of two halves though, and the second half more uneven than the first. But I still really enjoyed it. I’m glad you got another copy after giving your proof copy (which had more typesetting errors than I’ve ever seen before in a proof anyway) to such a good cause.

  19. Linda Grant said,

    It’s perfect for a Saturday morning lie-in, witty, deadpan, original. I’ll read the earlier ones now.


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