“Mrs. Head: ‘Things have changed.’
Tory: ‘But that’s only to be expected. As soon as [the war] is over we’ll be back to how we were.’
Mrs. Head: ‘No, it’s not just the war…I don’t think anything has been quite the same since…’
Mrs. Head: ‘Since we ate Mr. Dando.’ ”
Gerard Woodward has been one of England’s most iconoclastic literary authors, rejecting all the polite expectations of writing and society by creating novels that seem, on the surface, to be about real families experiencing real life but which have a darker agenda. A poet with a fine eye, ear, and sense of pacing, Woodward uses these talents in unique ways to create dozens of scenes which surprise and shock and even repulse, all the while causing the reader to laugh uproariously, not from shock or embarrassment but from surprise and delight in his daring. Quietly showing his characters in absurd situations, he forces them to take unexpected actions which they could never have foreseen – and these actions then allow Woodward to enter new territory (such as the cannibalism seen above), forbidden to “polite” literary authors and readers. Amazingly, he does all this without any profanity or foul language.
The opening pages of this novel, set during World War II, are alternately wickedly funny and darkly ironic, and graphically illustrate Woodward’s approach. Mrs. Head, a proper London widow is preparing dinner for her daughter Tory who is living with her and working for the war effort in a gelatine factory. Tory’s three children are safely ensconced in the rural countryside; her husband is missing in action. When a German bomb hits the butcher shop nearby, Mrs. Head explores. She has resented Mr. Dando, the butcher, for much of the war since he favors the younger, more attractive customers with steak while giving her tripe and liver. As she looks over the wreckage, she finds an absolutely perfect leg of pork. Quietly picking it up and wrapping it, for fear that someone will think she is looting the wreckage, she brings it home and roasts it for their first real dinner in ages, admiring the cracklings and the scent as it roasts. It is not until Tory returns home from work and asks, “Where’s Mr. Dando?” that the horror of what they are eating hits home.
Almost immediately after this, Woodward focuses on the horrors visited soon afterward upon Tory Pace, Mrs. Head’s daughter. After many months, she learns that her husband is alive, but when she receives mail from him, she is shocked that he does not even ask about his children and requests no food, clothing, or “care packages” from home. All he wants is for Tory to send him “a really filthy [letter], full of all the dirtiest words and deeds you can think of.” A meek little man until now, Donald Pace seems to have changed completely, but thinking of her “wifely duty,” Tory wants to oblige as much as she can. She is particularly upset as she imagines his German captors censoring her mail, wondering “What sort of impression is that going to give of our [national] moral health?” Her initial responses to Donald are answered with “NOT GOOD ENOUGH,” in capital letters, and, stymied, she stops writing for a while, only to return to this mystifying wifely chore. Donald then demands a nude photograph of her, even sending the name and address of a London photographer who will develop the smutty pictures he wants. Though appalled, she continues her research into “smut,” which takes her to places and introduces her to people she has never even imagined before.
Throughout, Woodward’s literary skill never fails. At one point, as Tory is remembering their early marriage and initial attempts at sex, she comments that Donald, a wallpaperer and painter, “had treated her rather like an awkward corner of a room that needed sanding and papering.” The wife of one character is described as “a sarky little tripehound.” Champagne is “like trying to drink a beehive,” and heaven is “like a gent’s lavatory.” As Woodward takes us into the new life that Tory is discovering, the reader cannot help but feel that she is learning and improving her life. And then Donald returns home.
Here, the book, unfortunately, divides into three parts. The beginning, which will keep readers in stitches; the second part, in which Donald Pace returns home to England and is reunited with his wife and children; and the third part, which brings the story to a later point in which the children are grown and Tory is exploring her own literary career. Donald believes he deserves special treatment, but it is his own treatmentof his oldest son that leads to a crisis and the novel’s turning point. The novel never again returns to the ironic humor of Part I, preferring to remain in the no-man’s-land of domestic trauma and, often, poignant sadness.
Though the American title of this book is Letters from an Unknown Woman, the British title, Nourishment, is far more revealing. The author emphasizes throughout, starting with the scene of cannibalism in Part I, the need of people for nourishment – not just physical nourishment in terms of food, but emotional nourishment, support, care, and love. In examining this theme as it plays out in the lives of his characters, Woodward makes Tory a realistic character, but Donald is a nasty stereotype, a demanding and selfish person, a “small man,” who expects special treatment without the need to contribute to the nourishment of anyone else. The depths of his selfishness do not become clear until the end of the novel. Fortunately, by then, his family has learned not to depend on him for anything.
Woodward has always been a special favorite of mine, and though I liked this book very much and would encourage readers to read and enjoy it, despite its inconsistent tone, I must confess that my favorite Woodward novel is A Curious Earth, my Favorite Novel of 2008.
Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://users.bathspa.ac.uk
The woman packing gelatine at the Nelson Dale Gelatine Factory has the job that Tory Pace was doing in London during the war: http://www.search.windowsonwarwickshire.org.uk
A cottage in Wealden, perhaps similar to where Tory lives, at one point, is seen on http://www.holiday-rentals.co.uk
Donald returns home on a Dakota plane: http://www.holidayextras.co.uk