First novels are often accused of being thinly disguised autobiography.
John Lanchester has performed tortuous literary acrobatics to
escape this dictum. What he has used from his previous incarnation
as a literary and restaurant critic is a finely tuned sense of
literary dos and don’ts, and an encyclopedic tour of world gastronomy.
For the literary type, Lanchester’s malevolent and self-deluded
protagonist, Tarquin, is a satisfactorily deceitful and menacing
guide through a psychopath’s life and relationships. For the gourmand
the learned, precious, but frequently just observations that litter
the narrative journey from Britain to France on the nature of
food, and the plethora recipes that accompany these ruminations,
are a delight.
Tarquin (a name he adopted to replace his given name, Rodney)
is convinced that his achievements in the culinary world far outstrip
those of his dead brother, a celebrated sculptor. A harmless enough
conviction, one might think: deluded, yes, absurd, yes, but hardly
dangerous. It is Tarquin’s great gift – his love of food – that
provides us with more and more clues as to why he is trailing
a seemingly harmless young couple on their honeymoon, armed with
a well-thumbed copy of the Mossad Manual of Surveillance Techniques.
Tarquin’s life is his work of art. His parents, his nanny, his
brother all experience Tarquin’s genius at full tilt. He is an
ironist and a humourless pedant. To create a character who carries
the whole thrust of the narrative upon his smug and thoroughly
dislikeable shoulders is a daring move on the author’s part. The
result is a novel which is part thriller, part culinary guide
and which functions with chilly luminosity. This is not a novel
of the heart, but of the mind. And although Tarquin’s empty narration
can become wearisome at times, admiration for Lanchester’s technical
virtuosities has the edge as Tarquin fulfills his debt to pleasure
with gruesome satisfaction.
Reviewed by Sara Rance