The comfort of cake
THE NORMAL MAN Susie Boyt Weidenfeld £9.99 HEMINGWAY'S CHAIR Michael Palin Methuen £14.99
Saturday 08 April 1995
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.
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