The Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood (Canongate, £14.99 HB)

The Last Banquet by Jonathan GrimwoodThis is a novel that shouldn’t be enjoyable. It purports to be the journals of Jean-Marie d’Aumout, a nobleman in pre-revolutionary France. We first meet him as an orphan eating beetles (the black ones taste nicer than the brown ones) outside the house where his noble (but stupid) parents have starved to death because they were too proud to beg for food. Throughout his life, Jean-Marie is obsessed with food, more particularly with the taste of food. He isn’t a glutton, he just wants to taste everything at its best. His journal entries are interspersed with his recipes for the various foodstuffs he encounters. Through a series of adventures he becomes friends with Ben Franklin, Voltaire and de Sade, and achieves some prominence at Versailles. He marries and has children, is aware of the unfairness of French society but fears the revolution which he can see is approaching.

It shouldn’t be enjoyable because it dispenses with little details like plot arcs, protagonist-antagonist conflicts, tying up all the loose ends… it’s written exactly as if it’s the journal of one man’s life. But despite that, and despite the inherent ickyness of a boy/man who will describe eating anything and everything, I loved this book. Jean-Marie was beautifully developed and totally believable, and the surrounding cast of characters are still living in my head. The tawdry not-quite-splendour of post-Sun-King France is presented in the matter-of-fact manner one would expect of someone who lived there, but that someone has a way with words that takes all your senses from the present day and plonks them down in eighteenth-century France.

I’m looking forward to Grimwood’s next novel – I hope it is equally mould-breaking. (Jean-Marie doesn’t mention eating mould, but I’m sure he would have done)

Pippa Hennessy

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