There’s lots I want to say about Emma Jane Unsworth’s debut novel, Hungry, the Stars and Everything, including drawing attention to perfect little passages such as this –
“Children aren’t supposed to like dark chocolate. It’s one of those bitter things that you are meant to acquire a taste for later in life, like olives and self-pity. But I was different. I enjoyed the taste of wrongness in my mouth…”
Instead, I’m taking my lead from the book itself, where Helen, the main character and an emerging restaurant critic, is given advice on how to write a review –
“‘I’ll tell you my bulletproof reviewing technique,’ Keith began… Then, leaning in towards me, a thick tongue of orange liqueur fumes rolling out of his mouth, he whispered: ‘Whenever I leave a place, I ask myself three questions. One: How do I feel? Two: Where did that transport me to? And three: What did I enjoy the most?'”
So, according to Keith’s checklist, this is how Hungry, the Stars and Everything measured up –
1. Much of the time, nervous. Unsworth does the is-she-deliberately-screwing-up-her-life? character very well – the reader is left as a helpless observer, witness to one poor decision after another.
“I broke it off with him when he made me a mix tape so appalling that I didn’t even bother to play it. I looked at the track listing and thought, This shit is going nowhere.”
2. A fabulous restaurant – the descriptions of food are sensational. Chapters in the book are arranged around a dégustation menu that Helen’s reviewing. Each dish is introduced and linked (subtly) to an event in her life, allowing the story to switch between past and present.
Roast pheasant served with spiced prune mincemeat, is described as –
“It is sweet, rich, exciting and poignant – simultaneously full of promise and tinged with tragedy. It tastes like Christmas.”
3. Unsworth’s neat (sometimes cutting), insights –
“I wondered whether being in love with the same person for ever and ever always involved living a lie of some kind or other.”
“…I realised that I wasn’t sure that life went on: sometimes it stopped when you realised that you were never going to get what you really wanted, and carrying on regardless after that was all just part of growing up.”
3/5 In her second book, Animals, Unsworth perfected what she started in Hungry, the Stars and Everything. There was an element of the plot in this story that really didn’t appeal to me – probably just personal taste but it felt like a trick and the way it was resolved was odd. That aside, all the relationship bits, the growing-up bits, the family bits, the astronomy bits and the restaurant bits were brilliant.
Helen eats green tea shrimp with nano-lime –
“On a square of brown toast the size of a postage stamp, a tiny pink shrimp is curled around a pea-sized blob of lime-coloured concentrate. It’s playful, colourful, delighted with itself.”
I like the idea of a shrimp being delighted with itself… Here’s a recipe for green tea poached shrimp with a lime and chilli dipping sauce.