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Nourishment by Gerard Woodward

I had heard a lot about “Nourishment” before reading the book, and from various sources. The Internet primarily did not give me any promising reviews and friends who had read it did not seem to be speaking favourably about it either. However, having said that I feel nourished (with all pun intended) after reading the book. I had also earlier heard a lot about “August” by the same writer and now I cannot wait to read that one.

Nourishment is set in 20th century England. The setting: World War II. Victoria ‘Tory’ Pace is alone in London working for a gelatin factory. Her husband has been presumed dead and her children have been evacuated and sent to live with a foster family. And if things weren’t  bad enough, her widowed mother decides to come and live with her. She then out of the blue receives a letter from her husband who is actually now a POW asking her to write him a dirty letter. ” A very dirty letter”.

This demand, on the face of it rather touchingly desperate, coincides with a piece of black farce concerning rationing, meat shortages and a bomb landing on the local butcher’s shop, the upshot of which is that the two women dine one evening on a meal that is almost certainly roast leg of butcher.

The violating of these two large taboos – obscenity and cannibalism – plunges Tory into a long, serio-comic process of self-discovery, as a woman, a mother (she has three evacuee children) and, later, as a writer. Her first efforts at epistolary smut, amusingly hopeless (“did ‘womb’ count as an erotic word?” she wonders at one point), are received with angry displeasure: “NOT GOOD ENOUGH!!!” Stung, but also wanting to do her wifely duty, she applies herself more diligently to considerations of the flesh. One day she wanders around the back of the gelatine factory where she works, and encounters the owner, a weather-beaten phallus of a man, training young boxers in a gym.

You see it coming, and it does: a steamy affair that provides Tory with her long-delayed sexual awakening, while also conveniently supplying her with material torrid enough to satisfy her husband. One more click of the plot, involving the disclosure (to the reader but not to Tory) of a nasty ulterior motive behind the husband’s request, having nothing to do with lust or even affection for his wife, and the machinery is fully wound up.

The unfolding of all this is deft and assured. Woodward has a light touch that enables him to glide over the bumpier improbabilities of his storyline. Sharp images constantly replenish the sense of reality – a mass of bluebottles, for instance, being batted from a pile of bones at the factory, “as though having collectively lifted a single baffled head, lowered it again to minute inspection of the bones . . .” Period detail – clothing, décor, streetscapes – is used sparingly but with precision. And there are funny lines throughout, though the humour tends to be at the expense of the characters, which adds to the distancing effect. Listening to her boss (a worthy addition to Woodward’s gallery of monomaniacs) proclaim his vision of a world converted to an all-gelatine diet, Tory “was certain there was something wrong with the idea. Then she had it. ‘But wouldn’t it wobble terribly?'” The rift you trip over, between what you expect her to say and what she actually says, triggers a laugh, but the line diminishes Tory as a character, and one’s interest in her dips a little as a result.

It also points to a certain silliness that runs through the whole book. Woodward has always cultivated a tension between the sublime and the ridiculous. Crisis, in his characters, often assumes peculiarly daft forms, and Nourishment is no exception. People turn their rooms into whisky distilleries. They set their heads on fire. They build junk robots that bear a sinister resemblance to other members of the family. For one stretch of her journey Tory surrenders, nunlike, to a compulsion to embark on a career in the local public convenience. “It’s done, Mother. I am a lavatory attendant.” The difference here is a certain lack of conviction about the other side of the equation, the seriousness. For all the energy and resourcefulness Woodward throws at his big motif of physical and emotional nourishment, he never seems quite as interested in it, novelistically, as he perhaps wants to be. The implied promise of the title (as in, say, Persuasion) is of a sustained investigation into the concept, but although the story checks off every imaginable kind of nourishment as it progresses, it never actually digs very deep into the idea. I wondered if the setting – that pinched wartime world – was perhaps a little too conveniently deprived and repressed to yield anything new about human needs and desires. However, at the end of it all, I did feel Nourished.

Here’s a peek into it through a Youtube Video Dramatization/Trailer:

Nourishment; Woodward, Gerard; Picador; Rs 615