BOOK REVIEW / A hunger for men, chocolate and succulent jellies: 'Eating Children' - Jill Tweedie: Viking 15.99 pounds

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The Independent Online
THE GREAT thing about Jill Tweedie's new book is that you can't put it down. Eating Children reads like a novel, the kind you want to pick up on a hot afternoon and consume, from beginning to end, as if it were the box of Turkish Delight that Tweedie's family received at the end of the war from her mother's exotic family in Constantinople.

The book begins with the death of her father, a Scottish grotesque in conventional clothing. She thought of him not as daddy but as 'The Cleft', a dour, dry man whose death she longed for every time he pronounced on kilts, on books, and especially on 'gurls', who were not to be encouraged in the pursuit of books or, indeed, the wearing of kilts. 'She's a gurl,' he said, 'and gurls can't wear the kilt.'

But Tweedie discovers that when her father does die the wheels come off. At first she feels immense relief, as if 'being rid at last of some alien growth'; but she subsequently feels lost - 'a jelly lacking any boundaries . . . sploshing gloomily about in the primordial soup'. In a sense this death, the occasion for the beginning of her wonderful memoir, makes her realise that she has to start all over again.

Eating Children is about how girls grow up and define themselves, but there is no propaganda here, only a rich tale of the first couple of decades of a woman's life. If there is any food for thought in terms of women's issues - how we are taught and what, how we define ourselves and when - it is only by implication and always in terms of the exquisitely detailed story-telling. If God is in the details, Tweedie must have been among the devout when the goodies were handed out.

Jill Tweedie, born just before the war, had a 'nice' childhood in the niceness of the Home Counties. All the niceness pretty nearly suffocated her, but the presence of the ogre called a father, 'as unacquainted with love as a Scots pine tree', put steel in her soul and sowed the seeds of sedition that, in turn, made her a writer. Her mother, a prettily dressed woman who could not cope with anything much, testified with regularity that everything in a woman's life was to do with being 'unwell'.

In her own defence, Tweedie simply decided she was actually the child of a different couple and got on with a life that was in no way connected to the grown-ups. Then came the war, then peacetime. Parcels began arriving, among them the Turkish Delight - 'like nothing I'd ever seen before, these succulent jellies buried in snow, pink and green and bristling like hedgehogs with almond spines'.

The book contains several great set pieces. At 18, Tweedie visited Vancouver, where her Uncle Harry had made his New World fortune, and where everything was bigger and cleaner and richer, and Aunt Jen, who was bald as an egg, had wigs to match every costume. There is also a wonderful cameo appearance by Gary Cooper.

And there is the honeymoon at a German schloss. Having married a Hungarian count in Canada, Tweedie is taken to visit the relatives. The journey includes the consumption of freshly killed pig with gold knife and fork, perpetual truffles and a cast who might be the offspring of a union between Sigmund Romberg and Eva Braun.

Eating Children is also about the sense in which children feel separate from grown-ups and girls from boys. As a girl, Tweedie was saved by a passion for school and ballet, which she was very good at. At 16, she went to a finishing school in Switzerland, where she learnt a little about sex and a lot about the friendship of other girls, and held the school record for eating 12 Tetes de Negre at one go - 'a chocolate mound bulging with whipped cream'. Both the inner and the outer girl have enormous appetites.

As a young woman in London there are lots of men, and her entire life is, in a sense, defined by the pursuit of and by, the desire for, and entanglements with, men. Something else shimmers on the horizon, but this is for the next instalment. With the cunning of a terrific story-teller, Tweedie leaves us waiting for it, still hungry. But in Eating Children, the defining facts are always to do with men, with fathers and husbands and lovers. For women of her generation, this was only the truth, and what makes Eating Children so potent is that it reminds you that, in many ways, it still is.

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