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A Debt to Pleasure
John Lanchester

A Debt to Pleasure
John Lanchester
London 1996

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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


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