The award-winning British author of such inventive and memorable fiction as Quarantine (1997) and Being Dead (2000) enters new territory with this beguiling collection of 64 very short stories about what may as well be called the metaphysics of food.
Crace prefaces these untitled pieces with a tantalizing pseudo-biblical epigraph including the orotund declaration, “Nor is there honey in the devil’s larder.” Then he treats us to freely ranging anecdotes (some a single paragraph, none more than a half-dozen pages) that dramatize with terse wit the exigencies of appetite and custom as expressed in both seemingly realistic and expressly parabolic terms. Several take the form of generic character contrast: a woman who finds love in middle age simultaneously develops the healthy appetite denied the withdrawn younger woman listening to her story; a private club’s dining-room manager punishes his staff for the same breaches of etiquette he finds himself compulsively committing; and a truculent, self-denying health faddist who preached that “Migraines are occasioned by modern life” is remembered by the jaded voluptuary who long outlives her. Echoes of Kafka, Borges, Cortázar, and the Kosinski of Steps are heard in such shapely fables as the tale of a celebrated restaurant that scorns to serve food whose patrons nevertheless pay handsomely to soak up its unique ambience (“It celebrated emptiness in an otherwise sated world”); a vision of God observing innocents plucking bitter crab apples from a “forbidden” tree; and an erotic roundelay in which dining companions play “Strip Fondue,” impulsively subjecting themselves to “the scorching treachery of cheese.” The “lessons” of these sophisticated stories might have been devised by an epicurean Aesop who wisely balances the pleasures of seizing the day with a resigned understanding of the vanity and evanescence of sensual gratification.
As one Crace character puts it, “Life is uncertain. Eat the pudding first.” Readers would be well advised not to bypass a morsel of this sumptuous fictional feast.