It’s a pleasant surprise to see Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment out in India so soon after its UK release. Woodward has always been on the cusp of literary stardom, holding his own in—if not always winning out—the prize stakes against contemporary giants such as Alan Hollinghurst and Colm Toibín, but in spite of fulsome praise for his Jones trilogy (August, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon and A Curious Earth), he has always been the sort of author more likely to be found in British Council libraries than Crosswords. In fact, if there is such a thing as the quintessential British Council novel—a novel acutely self-conscious of its late 20th century Britishness—then Woodward’s newest might just typify it.
It stakes its claim on classic territory: London in the middle of World War II, bombed and gritty, full of hardworking, despairing people, mostly women. The Pace household, with a soldier imprisoned in a German camp, a wife consumed with wartime work in the stinking hulk of a gelatin factory, and children hidden away in the countryside, is neither glittering bravely nor ravaged: it is simply hungry. In this climate of deprivation, Woodward tells a story of how multifaceted that hunger is, and how deep it can run. From accidental cannibalism to a programme to end world hunger through gelatin pills, Nourishment explores the most ridiculous—and oddly sad—ways in which human beings try to deal with the basic requirement for physical sustenance.
But nourishment takes varying forms. When Donald Pace writes home to his wife Tory asking for “a dirty letter, by return of post”, and then keeps insisting—returning her initial timid responses (“NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!!”)—Tory’s helpless embarrassment turns to anger, and inevitably, to success. In her emotional resourcefulness, Tory seems to find a particularly English solution to a particularly English tradition of sexual shame. But not everyone in her family is as resolute as her, and as the war ends and the Paces spend the next decade coming to grips with its damages, not everyone succeeds in saving themselves and their relationships. This is where Woodward’s careful construction of his main theme, of how family relationships can nourish and starve people alike, comes into full flower.
The detached affection with which Woodward treats Tory and the family that gathers around her never tips outright into cynicism or sentimentality. It brings a freshness even to the most obvious evocations of pace and plot in his narrative. His sense of humour can keep us from recoiling at the real horrors his heroine faces. This muted sense of the absurdity of all things, especially in wartime, keeps us from recoiling at some of the real horrors of Tory’s predicaments. But while comedy can sometimes be about compassion—a quality Woodward displays with controlled sophistication—it can also act as a shield against true empathy. Food, sex, gelatin pills, erotica: All of these are part of a madcap scramble for sustenance, but they are also pacifiers that keep the raw horror of famine at bay. In spite of its general impression of slight silliness though, Nourishment does suggest a truth that is quietly and comfortingly profound: Love, like food, can only replenish those who are willing or able to accept its gifts. The full soul, as the Bible says, loatheth a honeycomb. To the hungry souls of Nourishment, every bitter thing is sweet, and every sweet thing bitter, until they learn to ask for what they want.
And for those interested, I am sorry to disappoint you: There is no actual erotica in the book.
Pan Macmillan India,
240 pages, Rs.615.