Nourishment opens in the early days of the Second World War, in the London household of Tory Pace. Everything has changed with the advent of war: her husband Donald has been called up, the children have been packed off to the countryside, and her mother has come to live with her, ‘possessed of an unshakeable belief that her daughter, and London generally, needed her.’
Before long, the mother has set the tone of the novel by bringing home a piece of mystery meat from the remains of a bombed-out butcher’s shop – possibly a pork joint, probably a chunk of the bombed-out butcher. Then Tory receives a letter from Donald, who has become a prisoner of war. The letter contains scraps of general news, and an urgent request for dirty letters from his wife: ‘I mean really filthy, full of all the dirtiest words and deeds you can think of… Love to your ma, Donald.’
Tory felt as though she had frozen into a solid lump. For a few moments she couldn’t move or speak. She stood by the mantelpiece, the letter hanging in her hand like the shred of a burst balloon. The porcelain spaniels each patiently examined one of her ears. She was experiencing no emotion, apart from a distant sense of panic, such as she sometimes felt on a railway platform when gripped by the absurd thought that the innocent old lady behind her might push her into the path of the express. Her mother had identified the truly horrifying thing about the letter, that it contained no reference whatsoever to Tom, Paulette and Albertina.
‘You had better give me the letter, Tory.’ Mrs Head was holding out her hand.
‘So that I may dispose of it properly, of course.’
But Tory doesn’t let her mother dispose of the letter; eventually, she begins to send Donald his dirty letters, an exchange nicely captured in this video produced by Picador to promote the book:
The letters are just one strand of the novel: Tory also begins an affair with her manager at the gelatine factory where she works, and various other storylines come in as the war progresses, and eventually ends. Gerard Woodward’s narration is strong and entertaining, and what could feel like a disparate set of elements are given a strong sense of unity by his confident tone and by the shared theme suggested by the title: it’s a novel that’s interested in what we consume, what we need, and the occasional differences between the two.
Only towards the end does the narrative come unstuck, with the last few chapters feeling a little rushed. Woodward’s talents can hold the increasingly numerous threads together for only so long: with the end in sight, suddenly the narrative starts jumping back and forth in time, chasing down one plotline and then dropping it to pursue another. It’s a little like watching a man chase half a dozen mini Babybel cheeses down the side of a mountain: entertaining, but perhaps a little rushed.
On the strength of Nourishment, I suspect that it’s well worth checking out Woodward’s earlier novels; although given the final frantic chapters of this book, I’m not surprised he wound up writing a trilogy last time.