Monday, June 25, 2012

Hungry, the Stars and Everything by Emma Jane Unsworth

Having known Emma Jane Unsworth for a few years, and having seen her read from her debut novel "Hungry, the Stars and Everything," first release from new Manchester press, Hidden Gem, it shouldn't have took me so long to getting round to reading it. The novel has just won a Betty Trask Prize. However, I was glad I waited, as its a novel to be devoured at one go; appropriately so, since part of its structure is to start most chapters with a course from the "taster" menu from new restaurant Bethel.

Food and novels have a long history - think Proust, Joyce and Waugh, to name but three whose most famous lines centre around food - yet given the contemporary obsession with celebrity chefs and Michelin stars, its not that often that a novel wallows in the culinary. Unsworth's heroine is Helen Burns, an accidental food reviewer for the local Manchester paper. Known for her somewhat scathing reviews (with at least one death threat received), its an ideal job for someone, who, on the first page, tells us that from an early age she wanted "more." For contemporary dining isn't about satisfaction or need, rather its as much a status symbol as an expensive handbag or a luxury car. Synonymous with the city-living of affluent twentysomethings, its also an international business. Manchester, infamously, hasn't got a single Michelin starred restaurant, and therefore being a food critic in the city is an experience that rarely rises about the bearable.

Told in the first person, Helen is a classic unreliable narrator, approaching her 29th birthday, in a steady but dull relationship with a chef who gives her pleasant comfort food, without ever really enriching the senses. If its a novel about finding "the one", Unsworth goes about it in a topsy turvey way - for Helen found hers at an early age; cloven hoofed, and coming if you call; the devil makes an early appearance in the book whenever she is trying to decide on a bit of devilment herself. As the meal at the new highly anticipated restaurant Bethel begins, with Helen dining alone to savour the evening, she finds the courses almost perfect chosen to remind her of things from her past. She's described as being like a "Russian doll" and the novel is structured similarly, with several layers to peel off before we get to the nub of the story - the "love of her life" which turned out into such a disaster. She's never mentioned this previous relationship to the man she shares a house with and who has just asked her to marry him. We are taken back, through a myriad of increasingly pretentious courses of the meal, to when she met Luke, an accident that seemed to be romantically fatal to her. Luke's not the usual bad boy, (she lists those: boys in bands, French exchange students etc. as mostly forgotten experiments) as he's studying for a PhD in cosmology. For the dreamy Helen, the stars are real but abstract, and Luke explains what they really are - the science, in some ways, even more astonishing than the poetry.

Over the next few chapters we edge back and forth between the present, the past, and with a new course delivered to her table at just the right time. For her and Luke was a classic relationship of dependency - moving in at the first chance and living a life of high emotion and constant drunkenness. Helen, it appears, is the sort of woman who has to throw her all into a man, whether its the love of her life, or the steady soul who replaces him - and in doing so, she's found it hard to even identify who she is or what she really wants.

It's a short book, that packs quite a lot in, yet at heart its a story that's purely about the romantic ideal. There's a drifting at the heart of these early 21st century relationships, that echoes those in Unsworth's Manchester contemporary Gwendoline Riley; yet Unsworth is more King Street to Riley's Northern Quarter. Set primarily in Manchester and Liverpool, its a metropolitan novel outside of the bigger metropolis. Here, the glamour is strictly seen through rain-splattered glass, and in remembering her true love, its a squalid bedsit and dirty hotel rooms that chequer the memories.

Like a lot of first novels, it can sometimes seem a bit uneven in its tone - the scaffolding of the meal providing a little too rigid for her needs, and at the beginning and end its abandoned. I'm not so sure the devil needs to be quite so physical a presence as he is in the early pages - if anything its the "idea" of the devil - "the devil in me" if you like that she's hunting down. Yet Helen is at heart a good girl, and its looking back on her younger self where you see how she's repeatedly damaged herself through relationships that haven't been good to her. Like a Rachael Cusk heroine she seems unable to have any perspective on her own life, and runs away from those - her mother and grandmother - who most want to help her. I felt that we could have had more of the life of the food critic, but the structure of the book, round this one stupendous meal, precludes this to some extent. I wonder if the slightly unclassifiable nature of what is essentially a love story, but with a twist at its heart, is what led it to being picked up by a small press rather than a major? But like Catherine O'Flynn's "What was lost"  it seems to be a much needed antidote to London-centred stories. Northern grit is never a bad addition to a story. Overall, it was a fulfilling read, that like all the best meals left me wanting just a little bit more. There's even a parrot called Adrian; of which, least said the better.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

I'm always a little uneasy when "steady and dull" is set up as twinned condemnations in a lover. However, this book does sound interesting.

Steady is good.