This is a powerful and driven story of talent, ambition, and revenge. Killian Lone is a gifted young chef who has learnt his skills in his aunt’s old cottage, a building steeped in history and the memory of his ancestor Mary, who was burned for witchcraft. From the outset of the novel it is clear that there is something special about this cottage: a secret, or a forbidden knowledge. Killian is inspired by his aunt’s cooking and by her stories about his ancestors, which give him the determination to pursue his dream of becoming a top-rate chef. Killian’s wildest dreams look like they are about to come true when he wins an internship with his idol, Max Mann, the “Gentleman Chef”. His dream swiftly turns into nightmare when Max’s true personality is revealed, and the newspaper reports and glowing reputation are clearly nothing more than a carefully created façade.
This novel is a combination of fairy-tale and gritty realism. It is atmospheric and stifling, demanding huge leaps of imagination even as it conjures what seem to be very accurate descriptions of the culinary world. It ostensibly has a weak protagonist, but one whose strength grows as he inherits the secrets of his ancestors. But those secrets were made for a reason…
Killian’s reaction to the obstacles blocking his path to culinary success is what really makes this novel. While he is disheartened, disappointed and hurt, he overcomes these ‘weak’ emotions and uses them to fuel his ambition. This sounds admirable, but there is a dark element to his behaviour. The author manages to illuminate this by using other characters such as Kathryn, Killian’s colleague and love-interest, to show us how he is changing from naïve apprentice into something much more complex and dubious. The success of the novel lies in the amazingly complex characterisation of Killian, the path he has to take to achieve his goal, and the transformation which he undergoes.
30/03/13 – Winter of the World, by Ken Follett. I’ve reviewed the first part of the Century trilogy in full, and there are many similarities between the books so a shorter review seems appropriate here. Winter of the World opens some years after the conclusion of Fall of Giants, and continues to tell the stories of the families which feature in the first book. The characterisation continues to be a major strength, as is the way in which Follett deals with the momentuous events of the twentieth century. The rise of Nazism and the oppression of the German people is the crucial and most effectively narrated part of this novel, as are the intricacies of international spy networks, which set the stage nicely for the third book, which will see the families struggling through the Cold War. I have the same reservations about this book as I did the first – the situations the characters find themselves in are astoundingly coincidential, but again it is difficult to narrate the story of the second world war without the characters being present for key events. However it does stretch belief when key international decisions are attributed to the characters, no matter how fond we may be of them. Overall a gripping read, perhaps slightly less cohesive than Fall of Giants, but still certainly an amazing epic – I look forward to part three.
11/12/12 – Tom-All-Alone’s, by Lynn Shepherd. As I only reached half-way before abandoning the read, I think a mini review is more appropriate. This novel is cleverly written but fails to engage. It is inspired by Dickens’ Bleak House, and does vividly depict Victorian London much as the great Dickens has done previously – but its homage to prior works of literature does more to irritate than entertain, with some characters aping original characters to such an extent that the book feels clumsy and mismatched, while other characters are lifted directly. The author is also attempting something not often found in modern fiction by using an omniscient narrative voice to comment on the novel’s events, but this too can be irritating.
02/08/12 – Lustrum, by Robert Harris. As I have reviewed the first book in the series, Imperium, I’ll just say a few words here. Lustrum continues the masterful telling of Cicero’s navigation through the dangerous waters of Late Republican Rome, and doesn’t disappoint. It takes the reader through the twists and turns of politics as Cicero faces his greatest enemy yet… Lucius Sergius Catilina.
Although I reviewed the second book in full here, I think the third book also deserves a full review, as it can work on its own as a distinct novel.
The Day Without Yesterday, like the other two books in Clark’s series, charts the dynamics between scientific discovery and the context in which those discoveries sit, a context much overlooked as today we take these discoveries for granted. The complex relationship between science and religion is a key thread, as it was in Clark’s previous two novels. The scene in which Lemaître voices his ambition of becoming a priest is especially powerful, as his comrades query him by saying that they thought he wanted to be a physicist. Lemaître is genuinely baffled by the idea that he could not be both priest and scientist – and he is of course correct.
In The Day Without Yesterday a stronger question of morality is introduced. Einstein is horrified to discover that one of his fellow scientists worked on the production of poison gas for use in the trenches, but is even more horrified when the wife of his friend and fellow scientist shoots herself, unable to forgive her husband, Haber, for the pain and suffering caused by the use of gas. Haber is remembered today as Nobel Prize winning scientist whose discoveries are used to create fertiliser required to provide the world’s population with food. His role in the deaths of soldiers a hundred years ago are conveniently forgotten as ‘the greater good’ has obliterated the memory of that harrowing time. This novel brings the terror and unprecedented scale of warfare vividly back to life, reminding us that for those living through the war, patriotism and moral stance had to do battle with each other, played out in the field of scientific progress.
Another theme which this novel shares with the other books is conflict between scientific rivals. We saw how Hooke and Newton’s bitter feud was sparked by one’s admiration for the other, an admiration which was ignored and trampled. Similarly Lemaître is rejected by Einstein, but towards the close of the novel the two scientists engage in a fascinating conversation which the author manages to turn into a fitting conclusion for the entire series.
Lemaître quotes Galileo towards the close of the story, saying that ‘the Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how Heaven goes,’ which is a good summary of the theme of this series of novels, and brings us full circle. Clark’s series serve as a discussion of science and society in a fictionalised form, crossing genre boundaries successfully, and prompting serious thought which is alarmingly relevant to today. Highly recommended reading for anybody with an interest in history and science.