This is Jonathan Grimwood’s debut novel, although it isn’t. He’s perhaps better known as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, a science fiction author since 1998 with works such as the post-cyberpunk redRobe and neoAddix, and his “Arabesk” series, set in an alternate-history North Africa.
But there’s always been a – dare I say it? – literary bent to Grimwood’s work, and his latest genre series, The Fallen Blade sequence, featuring vampire assassins in 15th-century Venice, had a lyrical quality which feeds very nicely into Grimwood’s own transformation from Jon Courtenay the SF/Fantasy author to Jonathan the, well, just the author.
Grimwood’s thoughtful SF novels have perhaps always made the “genre or literary” argument redundant anyway, but you can see why, from a marketing viewpoint, he has adopted a new persona for The Last Banquet, which has no fantastical elements.
The Last Banquet is the life story of Jean-Marie d’Aumout in 18th-century France, from our introduction to him, aged five years, eating stag beetles while the bodies of his murdered parents rot inside their farmhouse, to his death in the harsh post-Revolutionary years. Jean-Marie is a gourmet like none before him, a boy who becomes a man obsessed by taste, and the pursuit of new gastronomic experiences. Plucked from the dirt in rural France by unexpected benefactors, Jean-Marie begins to rise through the hierarchy of an aristocracy which treats France as though she is their very own banqueting table.
Grimwood moves along Jean-Marie’s life story swiftly and smoothly, leaping ahead years in a handful of pages or even paragraphs, but with such expertise and confidence that the narrative flows as easily as the Three-Snake Bouillabaisse that Jean-Marie concocts.
Throughout the novel Jean-Marie seeks out new tastes and sensations and the book is peppered with his ever-more outré recipes – Pickled Wolf’s Heart, Flamingo Tongue – each one concluded with Jean-Marie’s comparative observations: “Tastes like fish”, or “Tastes like chicken”.
There is a lot that tastes like chicken, and it is perhaps this ubiquity, this conformity in taste, that drives Jean-Marie on to ever more outrageous quests. He is a sensualist in all things, not just his food, and he eats and lives and loves with an almost reckless regard for convention, but without losing his humanity and innate sense of justice.
The Last Banquet is an astonishing, sensual feast which will appeal to those who enjoyed Patrick Susskind’s Perfume. And as comparisons are odious, so are categorisations. Is Grimwood an SF or a literary author? It doesn’t matter. He’s a damned fine writer, and with The Last Banquet, it feels like Grimwood has cut loose and written the book he was always meant to, with equal parts lush, sumptuous prose, convincing historical seasoning, and a cast of believable, human characters which will leave you sated and satisfied. Tastes like awesome.