Barlow debuts with three novellas: capable, researched, of varying interest.
The title story is doubtless the most engaging, and most awful. After WWII, with food in England still scarce, a waiter in a hotel restaurant is asked by one of the guests to concoct, however he can, an olive-oil-based fruit drink—no less than eight pints of it—and bring it to the guest’s room by that evening. The waiter does so—though he’ll lose his job for having commandeered the scarce ingredients—and, on delivery to the room, asks the gentleman what he needs the concoction for. The guest turns out to be none other than Michael “Cast Iron” Mulligan, professional eater, who began his career by eating great quantities of things but now eats strange kinds of things—and is this night going off to eat a chair. The waiter, fired as soon as he returns to the kitchen, becomes apprentice to Mulligan, learns how to use the big grinding machine that reduces almost anything to theoretical edibility—and carries on the tradition after Mulligan’s sadly forced retirement. Readers will find for themselves what constitutes the epigone’s most extraordinary and repulsive “meal.” In the second story, a mutated kitten born in a Victorian workhouse (the little creature has wings) becomes a kind of catalyst for all sorts of stories, terrifying some people into madness, enchanting others, proving profitable to still more—until tale’s strands are all knit together in a rather Dickensian manner. Barlow’s last novella is another piece of impeccably researched Victoriana, but it also drones on—and on—as a kind of loose-knit and puffed-up tall tale as English villagers go more than all out in creating a great local festival—all to keep the workers’ favorite makers of the new-fangled but much-loved pork pie from leaving town.
Much to see, hear, and reminisce about in tales of a compelling historic accuracy—though the pleasures, in end, aren’t deep.