This is a good start for a novelist.
“I’m laced to the gills, cupcake” said the parrot’.
It’s one of those truisms that in first novels one should write about what one knows, so Unsworth’s narrator Helen Burns is, handily, a Manchester food critic and restaurant reviewer – Unsworth has written for Confidential and other Manchester media on food.
To emphasise this there's a tasting menu that runs as a theme throughout the novel, the Devil himself is a major character, family life is expertly observed, astrophysics and astronomy are orbited, and a flensing heartbreak sits at its centre.
Hungry, The Stars and Everything is a love story, but it is a long way from chick lit, think more Jane Eyre. The love story is framed by the taster menu, as Helen, sitting in an unsettlingly odd restaurant named Bethel (it’s akin to a metaphysical Juniper if you remember that Altrincham venue), moves back and forward with her thoughts.
This device could have been clunky, but as each course appears Helen’s thoughts of a previous relationship become more and more urgent, more vivid.
Spam fritterati, carrot schapps gazpacho, ballotine of hogget with quince, and so on, are served to Helen (none of the other guests appear to be having the same dishes), as she recounts childhood flashpoints, and how her life with Paul, her partner, is solid and comforting. But her suburban contentment is cracking; the reader has little idea where it will lead and the pages are turned faster.
I was wrong-footed throughout, but it never felt gratuitous. You are drawn into Helen’s story, you experience the pain and somewhat obsessive joy she felt and feels, the alcoholism she peels herself away from, and Unsworth’s prose pricks and sparkles appropriately.
‘When you fall in love, I mean, really fall in love, time reduces down to nothing ... Your very own Big Bang ’; ‘thrilled from the top of my unremarkable head to the tips of my unremarkable toes. I knew that there were galaxies that could unfold beneath a single fingernail, within a single strand of hair’; and ‘“I’m laced to the gills, cupcake” said the parrot’.
There are a couple of oddities. The Devil appearing and disappearing is never satisfactorily explained. A supernatural tang is at odds with the science that threads through the tale. But it reflects the driven character of Helen, how things have been held back and suppressed – you are bound in, and Unsworth’s world makes sense at the time.
Literate, funny, brilliantly paced, Hungry, The Stars and Everything (so named because first novels have to contain it all you know), is at times strange, but also very affecting.
Hungry, The Stars and Everything is published by Manchester publisher, Hidden Gem Press priced £7.99. Available from all bookshops.
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