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.
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.
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
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.