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.