FOODIE FICTION: Pick of the week Confessions of a Flesh Eater by David Madsen (Dedalus)

INDEPENDENT CHOICE

A crop of new novels centred on the theme of food reflect the way that the British have taken to gastronomy in recent years. Stylistically, they vary from wacky comedy to historical pastiche. Laurie Graham's delectably titled Perfect Meringues (Black Swan, pounds 6.99) concerns the fortunes of TV cook Lizzie. As a 40-something minor celebrity, she should have it all. Instead, she tails men in supermarkets and makes dodgy assignations with unpromising types called Bernard. She is hounded by her loquacious mother, and the rambling rhythms of the old woman's thought patterns are captured beautifully: "They said that your dad shouldn't keep syringing his ears, but they didn't have to live with him." Lizzie also has to cope with a sulky teenage daughter, "jacking off gormless Gavin while they're supposed to be revising". In the meantime, she rues the fact that Midlands fans are not yet ready for lumpfish caviar.

A typical modern woman, she has a gay man - astrologer Louie - for her best friend. He is the recipient of the most tender culinary gifts: "I made a mille-feuille of plums and pears, warmed it through in his oven, dusted it with icing sugar and served it with very cold Jersey cream."

Laurie Graham's choppy narrative has the feel of a hastily scrawled diary, complete with Must-Do lists - "Clear leaves out of gutter. Rabbit? Be a better mixer. Move settee". Her comic touch is sure and psychologically accurate. In the dreaded Tonya, a dating-agency doyenne, Graham has created a truly memorable character. And her ear for media-speak is clear: "keep it simple, keep it nice, keep it badminton and Andrew Lloyd Webber". Her flippant wit at the expense of contemporary foibles is cutting, while retaining a breezy good nature. If Victoria Wood wrote a novel, it might read something like this.

Fermentation by Angeline Jacob (Bloomsbury, pounds 5.99) is a quite different confection - higher-toned, a kind of gastro-porn, very French in flavour. The heroine becomes pregnant and develops insatiable cravings for cheese. Chapter headings take the names of cheeses, with lush descriptions of each. This is a slightly precious, but reasonable pretext for the heroine's dive into the realm of the senses, where erotic dreams and reality intermingle.

How you take the sex scenes will depend on how you feel about sub-dom fantasies with lashings of cuts and burns. But these are delicately enumerated, shielded in existential angst, showing the sense-of-humour bypass endemic to most effective pornography.

A highly poetic narrator, Angeline Jacob (a pseudonym) is good at extended metaphors that meld the cheeses with descriptions of the woman's pregnant body. Pregnancy, sensuality and sex are usually seen - antiseptically - as completely separate entities. The way the author has managed to blend all three is an impressive achievement.

David Madsen's Confessions of a Flesh Eater (Dedalus, pounds 7.99) concerns cannibalism and parricide. It might be said to be the most in-your-face selection here, and is also the intellectual heavyweight. Orlando Crispe, a chef convinced of his own genius, writes his memoirs from jail, accused of the murder of Arturo Trogville - ace-rival and deadly restaurant critic.

Set in the present, the tale has all the grim foreboding of a genuine Gothic work. Its tone and emphasis owe much to James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, except that the touch is lighter. Confessions also helpfully includes actual recipes. Madsen has a thirst for clever-clever cross referencing, and there are enough operatic and literary names dropped to keep swots happy for hours. The knowing asides to "Herr Doktor Jung" and "retrojective significance" get tiresome, yet once David Madsen (another pseudonym) gets into his stride, his descriptive skills flourish.

Fans of body horror will find more visceral lusciousness here than in most synthetic US nasties. One of Crispe's talents is the ability to call up synaesthesia: the mixture of sense impressions. I liked the comparison of beef to brass in music and to "the sexual potency of young men before it had been squandered".

Orlando Crispe's gusto for copulating with carcasses retrieved from his restaurant's cold store, then serving them, is only rivalled by his heartfelt loathing for female flesh itself. Women are more fondly regarded by the chef as marinades for his masterpieces.

Fermentation, by the way, is the only one of this batch that left me with a real appetite for food. Still, these sybaritic-tending novels are more colourful and lively on the palate than the bald realism that has become a staple in fiction recently. Salut to all that, and bon appetit.

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