Monday, 4 April 2011

Mini-reviews 3: Toast & The Woman He Loved Before

Toast – Nigel Slater

I was given a free copy of Nigel Slater’s autobiography Toast at a book party in my local Waterstone’s store, as part of the World Book Night celebrations. World Book Night was an initiative when publishers produced a million special editions of a range of well-loved books, for book-lovers across the UK to give away to friends, family, colleagues or total strangers. My former boss was at the event handing out copies of Toast, which was recently made into a TV movie starring Freddie Highmore and Helena Bonham Carter, among others.

Nigel Slater is a well-known TV chef, and taste is one of the most evocative senses, so it makes sense that Toast is a food-based memoir. It is a quick read, written in short chapters - some more like paragraphs - each devoted to one of Slater’s childhood memories based on to some food item. Some chapters are about general family rituals based around a dish, others cover a very specific memory. The novel takes us through Slater’s childhood, the grief at his mother’s death, and the marshmallows which cannot replace a goodnight kiss. Slater describes his discomfort as his father’s remarriage to Mrs Potter, their cleaner, and his lonely teenage years living in the middle of nowhere. We follow Slater through his school days, cookery course, first jobs up until he moved to London to start his career. Toast succeeds in making me feel peckish and nostalgic for a time I never knew (1960s-70s, as far as I can tell) when British food was not as cosmopolitan as it is now – pasta, pizza, curry, now staple parts of the British menu, all being dismissed as “foreign muck.” Though at times I think the food described sounds bland at best, unappetising at worst, Slater writes with fondness and affection. But I gag in sympathy when Slater describes the various ways his father would persuade, force or fool him into eating an egg – the one food I can’t even swallow is eggs. Yuck.

The Woman He Loved Before – Dorothy Koomson

Last time I read a Dorothy Koomson novel, I dithered about whether or not it could be classed as “chick-lit,” and had to consider what I meant by the term. Despite its candy-coloured dustjacket, The Woman He Loved Before is not so much a romance novel as a thriller with ghostly undertones. With gritty, unflinching writing about a woman trapped in prostitution, and another suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it cannot be described as "fluffy" by any stretch of the imagination, although it starts off “chicky” enough, by recounting a relationship that started off as loathing-at-first-sight before turning into attraction and love. When Libby is injured in a car accident, she finds herself re-examining her relationship with her husband, who has widowed when they met, and who she suspects has never really got over the death of his first wife, Eve. Although Eve’s death was always put down to being a tragic accident, the doubt is there: was she murdered, and is Libby herself in danger? Then she finds Eve’s secret diaries which reveal a shocking past and horrific secrets about the family. The Woman He Loved Before would be a great companion novel to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca, exploring the unenviable role of the second wife, with themes of the importance of choices, and control – or lack thereof – over one’s own life.

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