Famished is a set of seventeen short stories which take food as their connecting theme. It’s filled with vivid evocations of flavours and textures, with those in “What He Choked On” proving especially memorable: manchego cheese tasting of “saddle and the hair of beasts in heat”; the “lemony smack” of Thai food; custard “viscous, like aortic blood”. Elsewhere you might encounter fudge “as dense as wet cement”, boiled tripe “encircled by effulgent lumps of onion”, or the “lambent smoothness” of a sugared almond.
These dark tales often have the ambience of a fairytale or a sinister children’s rhyme. Take the opening line of “Nanny Lovett and Pop Todd”: “Did you ever hear tell of Nanny Lovett and Pop Todd, with one pickled and the other soused?” In both “Cave Venus Et Stellas” and “Feasting; Fasting”, strangers are lured to their fate with the aid of deceptively delicate food: dainty cakes, tiny cups.
There’s a darkly amusing streak running through Anna Vaught’s stories, and this is most apparent when they take place in unassuming parochial settings. In “Seaside Rock and Other Homicides”, rumours fly about the particular creations of a small seaside rock shop, the province of a previously meek woman “corrupted, it is said, by an English erotic”. The protagonist of “Sherbet” is a Welsh villager who experiences a holy revelation upon tasting his first sherbet dip. Funniest of all is “Hot Cross Buns, Sharp Teeth and a Tongue”, in which well-intentioned Penelope’s idea of providing homemade hot cross buns to the local elderly doesn’t go to plan.
Among the vivid horror and black humour, there are traces of joy – most visible in the collection’s strongest story, “Shame”. It’s the satisfying tale of a woman finding freedom in eating whatever she wants, be that “the sunset dust in the bottom of the tortilla chip bag” or “the stuck-on bits from the roast potato dish”. For Catherine in “A Tale of Tripe”, food is both terror and salvation: she’s haunted by repulsive memories of the tripe served by her mother and grandmother, yet soothed by the colourful beauty of recipes found in Elizabeth David’s cookbooks.
Occasionally the stories set challenges it is difficult for the reader to meet. I couldn’t quite decode the Southern Gothic whispers of “Shadow Babies’ Supper”. I’m not sure I fully grasped “Trimalchio Jones” either, but I did have fun with its depiction of an absurdly decadent banquet. It also provides a quote that might be said to sum up the ways in which Famished walks the line between delicious and disgusting: “It was a glorious confection and yet, digging in with a silver spoon… I felt bilious and my soul ached that I should be a guest.”
Famished is a slender book, but – fittingly – it makes a rich meal. You might need a dictionary to hand if you wish to decipher its prodigious vocabulary: incarnadine, aliform, extirpation, turophile, saporous… You might find yourself becoming ravenously hungry over one forcefully redolent description, and feel your stomach turning in revulsion at another. It’s a unique, amply layered confection.
Famished by Anna Vaught is published by Influx Press.