09 June 2015

Book Review: Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around The World, compiled by Elaine Chiew

When Rachel Fenton asked me if I'd be willing to review Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around The World, I had my doubts - not about reviewing a book featuring Rachel's work, because I already knew what a fine writer she is, but because I don't boast strong credentials when it comes to the culinary arts. I can cook, if it's simple and straightforward and repeatable, but I am neither gourmet nor gourmand.

But it turned out that my failings on this score didn't matter. The food in most of these stories is an enabler of story, serving to bring characters together or push them further apart, and it was the one piece in which food was front and centre that seemed a little out of place among the rest of the stories.

As befits a New Internationalist anthology, the range of authors and countries represented is wide. The anthology starts with a short-short (a "stoku" - story + haiku) by Ben Okri, which didn't grab me at first but which I like more on re-reading, and then traverses continents and cuisines before ending with a story by the compiler of the book, Elaine Chiew.

My favourite stories in the anthology include:

Krys Lee, "Fat" - a young man's efforts to get out of military service through overeating reach an ironic conclusion
Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, "Mrs Dutta Writes A Letter" - probably my favourite story in the book, a moving story of an elderly woman's emigration from India to the US to be with her children, and the difficult adjustment that confronts her
Rachel Fenton, "Food Bank" - a sharp-edged relationship tale which showcases the author's ability to pack a lot of story into a limited space through drawing out the implications of her characters' behaviour
Elaine Chiew, "Run of the Molars" - not a million miles away from "Mrs Dutta Writes A Letter", but seen from the perspective of the children who must deal with the visit of the elderly relative from home.

There's a lot of other very good stories in here, and the anthology as a whole is definitely worth reading. (I was slightly puzzled by Diana Ferraro's piece, which appears to be a non-fiction discussion of changing times and changing foods in her Buenos Aires - but maybe there is a metafictional element here too subtle for me to notice!)

This anthology is well worth your time.

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