Rumbles from the belly of the beast

Strange Ways by Luc Lang, trans. Rory Mulholland Phoenix House, £9.99, 184pp
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Hands up anybody who has given even a passing thought to David Waddington this past decade. Nor had I until - in this fourth novel by Luc Lang, his first published here - Waddington's appearance makes the narrator "leap from my sofa. I burst into rapturous applause, dance for joy, yes! yes! yes!... the kitchens have been saved!"

Hands up anybody who has given even a passing thought to David Waddington this past decade. Nor had I until - in this fourth novel by Luc Lang, his first published here - Waddington's appearance makes the narrator "leap from my sofa. I burst into rapturous applause, dance for joy, yes! yes! yes!... the kitchens have been saved!"

One might not have realised that matters culinary were the ex-Home Secretary's province. But the narrator, former sailor Henry Blain, is "master of thirty ovens, twenty sinks", and "1,600 stomachs". That phrase provided the French title; the English is more closely linked with Henri's job as chief cook at Strangeways prison.

The staff have been sent home while inmates occupy a banner-strewn roof. Despite the hurled slates which have flattened lovingly tended flowers, Blain's garden and attic are in a prime viewing position. Blain makes good the wages shortfall by charging those who wish to watch events unfold. Who can blame him, for he could have been otherwise occupied with his Shakespearean library and a bottle of sherry.

This is hardly the stuff of many a contemporary French novel. But Lang's grasp of the English scene is so acute that Blain has no truck with the Guardian's promise to take a few pictures and then settle up. "Balderdash! It's cash up front." TV crews arrive, their work is duly screened, and the newsreader seeks Peter Jenkins's opinion. "Jenkins always wears a fluorescent green bow tie, which might well be the first thing he puts on in the morning when he gets out of bed."

The success of Lang's book is that one believes it. Hazy notions of what really happened at the riot are ousted. One is caught up in the events which follow Henri welcoming a 50-year-old virgin, Louise Baker, from an Anglican journal, and duly finding that "her thighs grip me like a pair of tongs".

No such events find a place in Judge Tumin's report on the prison, which finds its due place here. As does a long account of the way in which a disgruntled prison cook can vex the guards by serving up food that is sure to agitate the entrails to make the atmosphere "unbearably loud and unbearably smelly".

Rarely can there have been a novel which blends so piquantly Shakespeare, food, sex, a little gardening, and something more. With his firmly-rooted frivolity, Luc Lang creates one of the most beguilingly repulsive characters since Anthony Burgess's Enderby came to life in a Hove bedroom with "a posterior riposte".

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