Poetry Madness

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, October 16th, 2001


The Devil's Larder

by Jim Crace

A review by Brooke Allen

Jim Crace is one of the best novelists in Britain; in the United States he is hardly known. His work doesn't clamor for attention, like Martin Amis's and Salman Rushdie's; nor does it draw one in with conventional, reader-friendly narratives, like Pat Barker's and Ian McEwan's. On the contrary, its muted rhythms require a certain engagement from the reader, a willingness to read more slowly, to listen harder. Those who do so will be rewarded with fiction that is thoughtful, harmonic, and original. Crace never squanders a word or an image.

"I count myself to be a traditional, old-fashioned novelist rather than a conventional writer or a new-fangled novelist," Crace has written. "I am more interested in the fate of communities than the catharsis of individuals...My books are not an exploration of self. They are not autobiographically based. I do not write from experience." Well, yes up to a point. Individuals, characters, may not be his central interest, but he creates fine ones. And although he is not exactly experimental, it is hard to classify him as traditional: he seems too clearly to be always striving for new forms of evocation and description.

Crace's first book, Continent, a collection of interwoven stories, was published in 1986. Since then he has written, among other fiction, a novel about the onset of the Bronze Age (The Gift of Stones, 1988); one about rural nineteenth-century England (Signals of Distress, 1994); and one about modern metropolitan life (Arcadia, 1992). His 1997 novel Quarantine painted an indelible picture of Jesus' forty days in the desert as imagined by Crace, a self-described "post-Dawkins scientific atheist." His Being Dead (2000), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, was one of the most extraordinary books of recent years, a spare, unsentimental, yet seductive and even spiritual description of the process of death, decomposition, and renewal.

Crace has always shown a keen appreciation for the sensory and the physiological: for him, mind and body are intimately joined. With The Devil's Larder his subject is food and all its social, sensual, aesthetic, and even moral and spiritual implications. The book is not a novel but a succession of sixty-four fictional vignettes, each using food in a central role. He mingles the sensuous and the symbolic with impressive flexibility.

Food as nurture, as a symbol of love, has become a commonplace, but Crace is also aware of its possibilities in achieving revenge, and of eating as an act of aggression. In one particularly sardonic tale a widow whose husband had demanded perfect service at every meal continues to set a place for him after his death, gloating in her current solitude and his deprivation. And in a restaurant somewhere in the Australian or the African bush gastronomic pilgrims, in a grim parody of the restaurant culture of London and New York, dine on soft-bodied spiders, forest roaches, nearly extinct parrots, and a mysterious curry made of something still more sinister and exotic. "The atmosphere is sexual...We mean, at last, to cross the barriers of taste."

Crace communicates every state from degradation to ecstasy. If The Devil's Larder is inevitably disappointing after Being Dead, which came close to fictional perfection, it is a curious and fresh piece of work on its own rather stylized terms. Will it prove to be, for American readers, Crace's long-overdue breakthrough book, propelling him to the fame he deserves? Doubtful: it's a little too slight and mannered, and, like all of Crace's work, lacks surface razzle-dazzle. For those who don't require such superficial, attention-grabbing style, though, or who can look beyond it, Crace is among the most rewarding authors at work today.

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