The comfort of cake

THE NORMAL MAN Susie Boyt Weidenfeld £9.99 HEMINGWAY'S CHAIR Michael Palin Methuen £14.99

Here's an old music hall joke: I went to the doctor the other day and he said "Would you mind taking all your clothes off?", and I said "Shouldn't you ask me out to dinner or something first?"

Janey March, the heroine of Susie Boyt's first novel The Normal Man, remembers telling that one when she was six, enjoying watching her audience wonder if she really understood it. She learnt it, and millions more like it, from her beloved father who was to die when she was 11. She is generous with his jokes now, offering them to her readers with cheerful prodigality: she's that kind of girl.

Janey is on holiday from college as the story begins. Generally, she is happy to tramp around London alone, singing old songs, visiting exhibitions or hunting out unusual things, "sorrel, sporrans, sepia greeting cards, shimmering 3D pictures of the Virgin Mary", but this weekend is the tenth anniversary of her father's death and she has just been dumped by her actor boy-friend. She decides to go to a party. Here, to her joy, she encounters a Normal Man. Handing him a drink, she is jogged and cuts her arm badly enough to go to Casualty. He takes her, looks after her and, we gather, will probably stay with her for a long time.

It's a tiny story, but Boyt handles it beautifully. She is a perceptive writer - touching and extremely funny. She takes us in and out of Janey's mind, recalling her blissful childhood and her bewildered grief, her recourse to comfort food and her subsequent starvation, the intensity of her existence. With easy confidence she plays with time: as the glass breaks in Janey's hand "in an instant she pictured herself looking back at the event in time to come and murmuring `That was the first wound he ever gave me' ". And just as confidently, she plays with words, spicing her text with songs, puns, poems and playground rhymes.

"What's the fastest cake?" Janey asks herself, and answers, "Scone". From the icing which her grandmother scorned for its frivolity, to the custard creams at the end this book is a confection built upon confectionery. It is crisp, sweet and light, but it is also satisfyingly full of delicious chewy bits, an inspired and original recipe.

The protagonist of Michael Palin's first novel also suffers the traumatic early loss of his father, but he doesn't so much take to ptisserie as analgesia. Instead, he adopts Hemingway, turning his bedroom into a shrine to the great man's memory and filling it with almost-souvenirs - a poster, a typewriter and an army belt that are quite like the originals. His name is Martin, he is 36, unmarried and the deputy manager of a Suffolk post- office.

In perennial anorak, cycle-clips and bobble-hat, Martin is a pretty hopeless chap, but he achieves a kind of greatness when he almost foils a wicked scheme to transform his old post-office into an international telecommunications centre. To spur him on, he receives a supernatural pat on the back from, we assume, the spirit of his father, and is almost re-incarnated as Hemingway.

Palin has devised an intricate plot and he displays prodigious knowledge of the details of Hemingway's life, but that is, sadly, not quite enough to make a good novel. His writing is patchy: physical descriptions are often slight. When buttocks are slender, chests are thin and legs - and even breasts - are slim, the vocabulary seems undernourished. Martin gets through gallons of vodka, tequila, whisky, grappa, beer and wine whilst working towards his apotheosis. Even his dreary almost-girlfriend manages the odd pina colada.

For a short book, it has a cast of thousands. We meet a dozen residents in the first chapter and the introductions continue until the last page. There are enough minor charcters to rival Tolstoy. Yet for all these cavils, there are some grand, Python-esque moments. I cherish the scene where useless, hung-over Martin decides to end it all. Hoping to be gored to death, he tries to persuade a bull to charge at him. Alas, it proves to be a bullock and runs away.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine