Sensuous take on meat, fruit and veg
IN the tradition of European folktales, Caroline Hamilton’s debut novel, Consumed , will have you reading into the witching hour as the Melbourne- based novelist serves up a story of food, family, obsession and twice- cooked revenge.
Amelia, a lonely young woman who dreams of becoming the world’s greatest cook, trawls the markets of Melbourne for culinary delicacies. When she discovers a sweet, peppery brand of sauerkraut from a Polish deli, she embarks on a relentless hunt for the recipe. Her quest leads her to Katarina, a mysterious eastern European woman who lives in an old butter factory on the city’s outskirts. From the first bite of Katarina’s chocolate truffles laced with hints of vanilla, apricot, rum, ginger and hot chilli, Amelia is enamoured.
In Katarina she finds a tutor and the mother she never had. The enigmatic old woman begins to instruct her in the art of cooking, passing on age- old recipes that have the power to hypnotise, seduce or even kill.
When Katarina dies suddenly, Amelia is bequeathed everything the woman owned: her house, cats, vegetable garden and an ancient, leatherbound recipe book. But the more Amelia discovers about her teacher posthumously, the more she learns about her own fated place in a lineage of distinguished cooks that stretches back to the dawn of time.
Hamilton’s first offering is a sensual indulgence for lovers of adult fairytales and the macabre. The novel invites comparisons with Angela Carter’s anthology The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories , a celebrated collection of feminist short stories that plays with the scripts of traditional folktales by turning their latent masochism on its head.
Hamilton’s novel toys with the ideal of the domestic goddess, for in this book women and food exist in a realm men cannot penetrate, and those who mistakenly attempt to do so pay a high price.
Consumed is not a story that will suit every literary palate. It caters to those with a taste for visceral imagery, who do not mind a generous dollop of perversity.
At times it is an assault on the senses. The language is glutinous, rich, heady but occasionally repulsive. The descriptions of slaughtered swine could turn even the most voracious carnivore into a vegetarian. And for the reader with a sensitive constitution, Amelia’s final dish could be too much to swallow.
But Hamilton’s evocative descriptions of lavish, 12- course feasts will likely inspire readers to head to the kitchen between chapters. The recipes that are scattered throughout the book will also stir the reader’s gastronomic imagination, as well as offer a few practical tips to the culinary challenged.
Consumed is ambitious in its appropriation of mythology. The narrow, sensual world of Katarina’s vegetable garden is an enchanted, albeit sinister place to be drawn into. While you never get a sense of Hamilton’s protagonist as a finely drawn character with an authentic emotional life, she is, after all, the heroine of a contemporary fairytale.
After closing this book it will be difficult to look at canned tomatoes, poached pears or cured meats in the same way again.
Hot chocolate: Tempted by truffles