Nutmeg by Maria Goodin – a work of imagination

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This is a delightful book on the surface. A book of stories and images of food coming to life around a series of houses, throughout the life of a young woman. It is also, however, a book about how people learn to protect themselves, through imagination and exercising their talent. On the one side is hard, scientific realism, investigation and refusal to accept anything but the truth, no matter how painful. On the other hand, the loving gentle deception which shields against horrific truth. This is a funny book full of great invention. This is a story of women who have to find a way to live with their past, to protect those they love.

Meg is a young woman who is fundamentally confused. She lives a strictly scientific life, in an arid relationship with Mark, who is always pushing for the truth. She has worked hard to exclude all hint of fantasy from her life in reaction to her growing up with her mother, who seemingly cannot function without a ridiculous explanation for every aspect of life. From the moment of Meg’s birth, which apparently happened before she was thoroughly cooked and she needed to finish growing on a sunny windowsill, to the identity of her father who was a French pastry chef who died in a pastry making accident, Meg has been told stories by her loving mother, who compulsively cooks. Innocent meals are dominated by dancing foodstuffs, escaping toads and window boxes which produce more than allotments. Meg’s mother talks in fairy tales, alluding to Meg’s extreme sweetness as a child, the smell of London being the food shops and stalls many miles away, everyday life being transformed into delightful adventures. Meg had rejected these tales in her own mind as soon as she was subjected to the sceptic children around her at school, as she realises that her mother’s tales are untrue and unconvincing.  She ruthlessly excludes any hint of imagination in her studies or life, and succeeds until her mother becomes seriously ill. As Meg moves back to her mother’s house, she tries to balance her own passion for the truth with her mother’s continuing manic cooking and recitation of fantastic tales. She tries to satisfy her boyfriend’s urging to find out the truth of her birth and childhood before, as Mark says, it is too late. Coincidence, hints and nervous exploration discovers some answers, but she questions if she really want to know the truth after all. The Gardener, Ewan, also shows there is another way to live, as he seems to suggest that too much reality is not always the answer.

This is a clever book, pitting different explanations of life against one another. Traumatic events can be dealt with in various ways, and here gentle fantasy is the answer. Meg’s situation is far from unique, but the way of dealing with it is unusual. The reader experiences her frustrations with her mother, life and real life, and the book itself has much to say about relationships in a complicated world, and there is much to reassure in this book. Sometimes the whimsy gets a little cloying, but it accurately reflects the nature of the world view Meg is battling with on a daily basis. A complete antidote to hard edged murder and mystery novels, this book itself is a romantic confection, with a traumatic edge. I was glad to receive a copy of the book from Legend Press. I found it an unusual read, comforting, funny and unchallenging, but also presenting an alternative way to live.

One of the things I like about writing Northernreader is reviewing a great variety of books; books that appeal to different people at different times. I hope you enjoy it as well! I am recovering from a huge book group meeting yesterday – nineteen people in our little sitting room! (One member is only four moths old, but behaved beautifully) Another good thing is that most had some good things to say about the book – Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, – so maybe it was not such a bad choice!