‘For the rest of his life he would be able to close his eyes and conjure up the sight and smell of the food he had eaten in France- he had relished the oily garlickyness of the stews, the artichoke leaves dipped in butter, the oeufs en cocotte– eggs baked in the oven inside huge beef tomatoes. A saddle of roasted lamb quilted with cloves of garlic and sprigs of rosemary, a work of art. These were tastes that were foreign- in every way-to the bland English palate. Cheese, sour and strong; the desserts: flaugnarde with peaches, clafouti with cherries, tarte aux noix and tarte aux pommes and a Far Breton – a kind of prune custard tart that to the end of his life he dreamed about eating again and never did.’
Profoundly affecting and masterful were phrases I considered using to describe A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson. The words dazzling, breathtaking, heartbreaking and magnificent adorn the front cover but what do any of these words really tell you?
The front cover also features a hare, an animal sacred to the celts. We don’t eat hares (yet another thing I learned form Elizabeth Luard last weekend). The hare was also the beast of Oestre, the Saxon Goddess of Spring and the dawn (Easter). There are stories that Oestre turned her favourite bird into a hare in a fit of anger or, the opposite, that she turned the hare into a bird as an act of mercy. I didn’t know any of this before I read the book but it would have helped if I had so, there you go.
This is a tricky book to review because it’s not just a matter of avoiding plot spoilers. It hardly seems to matter what happened in this story, only that it did happen.
Imagine a blank tapestry canvas and a pretty basket filled with skeins of embroidery floss in every imaginable colour.
Imagine that you are going to stitch and cross these threads onto that canvas to create a picture of the life of a man called Teddy.
At first pass, you might take a pale grey thread and outline the barest sketch of Teddy’s life – a privileged boy, a handsome and daring RAF pilot, a sad and lonely old man.
Then, with new colours, you begin to weave in Teddy’s aunt, the woman who turns Teddy’s childhood into fiction. You add Sylvie, Teddy’s ethereal and adoring mother. Next, perhaps, comes Ursula, the omniscient sister.
The threads of these women are interwoven with Teddy’s outline, giving him colour and substance.
Teddy’s colours intermingle with, Nancy’s, his opaque wife to produce Viola, a green-eyed daughter and, ultimately, Sun and Moon, the luminescent grandchildren.
You build the layers, filling the gaps with one subtle colour change after another, and running a thin red thread, unbroken, between them all.
Finally, when you have completed this radiant masterpiece you hang it up on the wall and stand back for a good look.
You think to yourself, ‘that’s not entirely honest’.
You take it down and turn it around so that it is hung, wrong side out, with all the knotted threads and woven-in ends on display.
You show your workings.
That’s what Kate Atkinson has done, only with words instead of threads and with less over-working of metaphor.
My favourite line:
‘And try to learn everyone’s names. And be kind. Because why not?’
A Far Breton.
Douse 280g of dried prunes in 80mls of brandy. Cover them up and leave them in a warm place to get to know each other better.
Whisk together 90g of flour, 100g of sugar, 60g of melted salted butter, two eggs plus two more egg yolks, 500mls of milk and 1 tsp of vanilla.
Leave the custard to rest in the fridge for at least four hours (and overnight is even better).
Rub plenty of butter around your baking dish (a pie dish or even a cast iron frying pan) and cast a sprinkle of flour over it.
Scatter the drunken prunes in the bottom of the dish and pour the soothing custard over and all around them.
Bake at 200 ºC for 45-50 minutes.
The Far Breton will rise to glorious height before falling back to reality. Fear not. Such is life.
PS. I really, really like this but it is prohibitively expensive: http://www.ehrmantapestry.com/Products/Mini-De-Morgan-Hare__DEMHA.aspx#.V0a4xpErKM8