Nourishment, by Gerard Woodward

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Gerard Woodward is an author who has been sitting on the “must-read” table for a while. After recommendations from several readers whom I admire, his trilogy (August, I’ll Go To Bed At Noon and A Curious Earth) has been on stand-by for some months. So when I discovered some months ago that his new book, Nourishment, would be part of the 2010 Booker season, I figured that I would read the single volume as a start and leave the trilogy on the shelf for future reading.

Alas, for Woodward, Nourishment missed the Booker longlist, which meant it went on to my waitlist. Having finally got to Woodward, I’ll now jump to the conclusion — it was not a travesty that this novel missed the longlist, but it would have been no shame if it had made it. And I am now looking forward to the trilogy even more than before.

Victoria “Tory” Pace is a war-challenged wife when the book opens — her husband Donald has been drafted and little has been heard from him since he headed to the Front. Her three children have been evacuated to Lower Slaughter (or is it Upper Slaughter?), but her mother has moved back to the London flat to help out through troubled times. Early on in the novel, a bomb falls in the area of Peter Street where Tory and her mother live and Woodward wastes little time in letting the reader in on the macabre aspects that will feature in the book. The local butcher shop, home to one Dando, is one of the shops that has been hit, its refuse blasted across the street so far that it includes the streetscape of Timothy’s, the bakers:

As she looked closely at the shopfront of Timothy’s now she could see, among the many scars and mini-craters of a building that had been exposed to a bomb blast, other matter. Yes, she was sure of it. There was actually a rasher of bacon stuck to the wall over the main window, perfectly flat against the brickwork, as though it had been cemented there. And then she saw another, and then another, fanned out across the facade, an array of streaky bacon. Then other materials that must have been flung with terrific force from the exploding butcher’s across the street — that thing up there, over the door, that was surely a sausage. It was flattened and burst, but it was definitely one of Mr Dando’s gristly bangers. (It was said that sawdust was the prime ingredient.)

There is a lot of butcher shop “debris” in the vicinity — “mince, pieces of liver, kidneys, other offal, all stuck fast.” As Tory’s mother, Mrs. Head, contemplates this all she finds something else:

She turned her attention to ground level and saw, for the first time, what seemed to her an almost perfect leg of pork, just sitting there on the pavement. Or, rather it was resting, tucked slightly behind a timber (probably part of a window frame), and was off the ground and quite hidden. Furthermore, it was covered with the same layer of dust as everything else in the area and so was well camoflaged.

Mrs. Head takes the meat home and proceeds to roast it. When Tory returns from her wartime job at the local gelatine factory, there is “a real roast dinner” of leg of pork awaiting her. Author Woodward extends the scene over a number of pages, but I’ll summarize it here: Butcher Dando was a casualty in the bombing and the roast leg of pork may, or may not, have been pork after all. Perhaps Tory and Mrs. Head have fallen into cannabalism in their search for meat in wartime Britain.

If that kind of absurdity puts you off, read no further — Woodward will not be your cup of tea (and, lord knows, what kind of tea it might be). If that bizarre twist has some appeal to you, read on because you have discovered an author who loves them.

Woodward ends this opening section with a telegram from the War Office. Private Donald Pace has been reported as missing which means that he might be a) missing, b) a prisoner of war, c) dead or d) “temporarily separated from his regiment” — the alternatives are all included in the telegram. In what for me is one of the most attractive aspects of this novel, it suddenly takes a right (or perhaps left) turn and heads off into a completely different direction.

Donald is, in fact, a prisoner of war and some time later a carefully-censored letter arrives directed to “My Dearest Darling Sweetheart Tory”. The sentiments in the letter are what you would expect until the concluding paragraph:

Nothing else troubles me apart from not being able to pull your knickers down and give you a good fuck. Instead, could you write me a dirty letter, by return of post? I mean really filthy, full of all the dirtiest words and deeds you can think of.

I require this most urgently.

See what I mean about the absurd? Tory is a conventional, not terribly attractive but not bad-looking either, isolated war-mother being asked to do something that is unfathomable in her experience. Then again, so is war. Several letters are exchanged where she politely declines, but Donald is insistent. Eventually she starts to do research in the restricted stacks of the local library.

Tory’s research tends to be of the dictionary/encyclopedia variety, with minor excursions into soft-core, but the story takes another turn when she attracts the attention of George Farraway, owner of the gelatine factory, but also a former boxer, so good that he fought Jack Dempsey and has retained the gloves from the match including, one would like to believe, Dempsey’s blood from an uppercut that caught the champion’s eye — before he slammed Farraway to the canvas. He will not only supply Tory with material for her letters (and they become very important as the novel progresses) he will become a potential beacon in her future. Oh, and he also has some dubious ventures that will be relevant.

Okay, some parts of Woodward are conventional — and some are very contrived (but I am willing to accept them). Farraway and Tory strike up an affair, conducted mainly in a cottage in the Home Counties. Farraway is an exceptional lover whose idiosyncracy is to describe whatever he is doing as he does it and he apparently does quite a lot (details are left to the reader’s imagination). Tory remembers these things, takes them down and, suddenly, finds a way to meet Daniel’s need. Everything is going along just fine until, at the end of a typical Woodward chapter:

But in fact the affair continued for several weeks more, and didn’t end properly until Tory became pregnant, in the late summer of 1941.

That last quote is not meant as an illustration of author brilliance, but rather of his control of his work. One of the traits of this book is the left-right turns that it will take — and I have only given you an introduction. Woodward loves to end one aspect of his novel and then strike off in a different course on another. Some readers will find this annoying: I thought it was a wonderful way of keeping me engaged with the book.

I have hardly introduced you to Tory, Donald and Mrs. Head in this review, but I feel no need to expand any further. Gerard Woodward is an author who asks readers to join him in a dis-connected journey and in each stage he goes into some detail beyond the obvious plot. If that is not the kind of fiction that you like, avoid the book. If it interests you at all, do pick up this volume.

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20 Responses to “Nourishment, by Gerard Woodward”

  1. Mystica Says:

    This sounds interesting but unfortunately still on order in our library. There is another book called I’ll go to bed at noon – maybe I will try that. Thanks for this review. new author for me.

  2. Guy Savage Says:

    Like you, I have the trilogy to get to, so I’d read those first anyway, but….no this one doesn’t sound ‘like my cup of tea.’ I’m vegan and the gelatine factory stuff puts me off. Tom didn’t care for this one, I believe.

  3. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mystica: I am one who believes in reading trilogies in order, so I would look for August which precedes I’ll Go To Bed in the trilogy — although reputation says the latter is the best of the three.

    Guy: I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t like the first third of this, on vegan grounds. Try the trilogy (which I’ve admitted I haven’t read) and if you like that come back to this. Woodward indulges in a lot of not very pleasant stuff, but to good effect, so I would not rule it out.

  4. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks, Kevin. I did order a McGahern book, btw.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Which one? He is a good enough author — more than that, he is exceptional — that he requires a reading strategy, but a number are all worthwhile.

  6. William Rycroft Says:

    Glad to read that you enjoyed this one Kevin, it is a curiously enjoyable book. Having finally initiated yourself into Woodward’s world I look forward even more to your thoughts on the trilogy. I actually read them out of sequence after loving I’ll Go To Bed At Noon so much I wanted to go back and read the first book, August. I think most agree that IGTBAN is the strongest in the trilogy but I loved reading all three for different reasons and was very sad when the Jones family finally left my life. I wish you all the best with them.

  7. Maylin Says:

    I’m a huge Woodward fan – I ordered Nourishment from the UK a few weeks ago and it’s been staring at me ever since, but I’ve had to get through a bunch of other work reading first. It’s definitely the first book I’m reading over the holidays. The trilogy is terrific and can definitely be read out of order, though I would agree the last two books are the best. A Curious Earth simply has one of THE best endings – so funny and touching at the same time. You are in for a real treat.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will, Maylin: Thanks for the encouraging words about the trilogy — that’s two more readers whom I respect that I can add to the “promo” list for it. I think I’ll start it sometime early in the new year.

    I like the phrase “curiously enjoyable” to described this book. It is almost as though Woodward is exploring a story stream and then decides to throw some extra spice into the mix to see what happens — and what happens is an entirely new story stream.

  9. BuriedInPrint Says:

    “…and in each stage he goes into some detail beyond the obvious plot.” It sounds as though he makes this compelling nonetheless; you’ve definitely piqued my interest!

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    BuriedInPrint: I would characterize Woodward as an author who is more interested in depth than breadth. Once he has set up the parameters of a thread (and that tends to include some very offbeat elements), he is very thorough about exploring many of the details involved. And then, having exhausted that set, he blows up the scene with some dramatic twist and has a whole new set of parameters to work with.

    I should note that my review only deals with a couple of the opening sets — there are a half dozen more to keep you interested in the book. If you like books that move from A to B to C, etc., you would probably find this frustrating. I’m quite happy to have the author lead me around the midway and have us try out a number of different rides.

  11. Colette Jones Says:

    I’m glad you liked it, Kevin. Your description of left and right turns is spot on, though I hadn’t thought of it like that. The Jones trilogy isn’t like that so much (though it’s been a long time since I read them), but hopefully will appeal after all the hype.

  12. Tom C Says:

    I read and reviewed this one and so it is interesting to read a different take on it. I am a great fan of Woodward’s Jones family trilogy which I think is exceptional. I found this to be a much lesser book – although worthwhile at its own level. You have actually made me see some its qualities which I missed at the time of reading it – its often best to read a review after the event isn’t it!

  13. leroyhunter Says:

    I’m interested in Woodward, so another positive review reinforces that Kevin. I thought this and I’ll Go To Bed At Noon were the ones I’m most likely to read, but reading some of the comments the whole Jones trilogy sounds worthwhile.

    I like that element you highlight in your quote, of the author blindsiding you with a key fact or change of direction in the middle of what seems an innocuous passage.

    I didn’t realise Woodward was a well-regarded poet before his novels found some success.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think the latest comments underline a consistent stream regarding Woodward: He is a challenging writer who, even when not at his best, offers readers significant rewards for the effort. That certainly would be true of my experience with Nourishment.

  15. bookermt Says:

    Kevin
    Glad you enjoyed this one. I haven’t laughed out loud quite so often with a book for quite a while. The nature of it is, I feel, rather different to the so called trilogy (which can be read in any order and which is very good on the whole) and I’m glad he has shown another side to his writing.
    I found the first half to be quite slapstick in a way and the second half to be much darker though just as amusing.
    Great and very believable characters.
    My only quibble is the ultimate ending where I actually had to check against another finished copy to check there wasn’t a page missing.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    bookermt: I agree with the “great and very believable characters” observation, but the best part is then throwing something quite absurd into the mix (say, an exploding butcher shop — although every episode in the book has a version of this). It is a characteristic that Ian MacEwan uses effectively at his best, although not in his most recent novels.

    I also agree with the observation about moving from slapstick to a darker view (and that data is missing from my review since I concentrated on the early incidents). I too found the ending somewhat flat, although I think that may be an inevitable by-product of Woodward’s strengths. And since I see this book as “episodic”, I had lots of other incidents to contemplate in memory.

  17. Rob Says:

    I’ve just finished this one myself, and have a review coming up in the next few days. I did enjoy it, but I wasn’t always 100% sure about the disconnectedness. The last few chapters seemed a little loose to me, jumping back and forth in time and storyline in a way that made them feel almost like notes towards a final draft. That said, I’m very glad I read it, and I’ll certainly be seeking out his others.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rob: I did find the last few chapters wandered a bit — I think it perhaps inevitable given the surprises Woodward has planted along the way.

  19. kimbofo Says:

    I keep seeing this book popping up here, there and everywhere, and haven’t been inclined to read it — until now. Your review is excellent, and made me chuckle out loud in a few places. So, if that’s any indication, I think I’d probably enjoy this book.

    (And yes, I’m back from China, and currently sitting out on my dad’s deck in 23C sunshine with the netbook on my lap. I have an enormous amount of RSS feeds to read, but thought I’d start with yours first.)

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    kimbofo: I am honored that you chose to start with me first (and note that you have already responded to just about every post that went up during your trip). I gather from your travel blog that China was certainly worthwhile — I am sure the extended visit home will be even better.

    Certainly some have found Nourishment wanting and I suspect I did pick it up in exactly the right frame of mind. It is not a novel for everyone, but I found that if I was willing to grant Woodward some of his more outrageous presumptions (absurdities) he returned the favor with some excellent wit and good reading.

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