Now dear reader, I’ll admit I’m something of an anti-feminist feminist, and I don’t feel altogether comfortable with the concept of post-feminist chick lit. Any mention of “a witty and romantic exploration of love, longing, and not getting what you want” – as appears on the dust sheet of Hungry, The Stars And Everything – tends to cause a face-contorting reaction in me, like I’ve sucked on a particularly bitter pill. Nonetheless – and this is big – I don’t think this debut by Emma Jane Unsworth is chick lit, and the back cover blurb (“Can Mr Wrong ever be Mr Right?” etc etc) does the novel no favours and conversely serves to sell it short.
As well as having a compelling plot with a couple of intriguing back stories, there are some interesting themes, plenty of three-dimensional characters and a studied but not overly studious use of language (take for starters: “The air boiled in the room around us”; “the blackbirds shuttle-running over grass”). The dialogue is clever and witty and the colloquialisms wonderfully lively (“I’m laced to the gills, cupcake”; “I was bone-sad. Bone-sad, lost, and fucked six ways from Sunday”). Together these elements create a vivid picture of people, places and proceedings, driving you quickly through the narrative. The structure, built around the protagonist working her way from start to finish of a fancy restaurant’s 11-course tasting menu, adds an extra layer and gives the whole package pace and a tangible forward movement, even if the concept itself isn’t really rocket science.
Science or, more to the point, physics – particle, quantum and most especially astro – takes a leading role, and I learnt more than one fascinating fact about life, the universe and everything. Another recurring theme is literature: the main character is called Helen Burns (oh, hello, Jane Eyre) while references are made to Rebecca, Madame Bovary, Dickens, Poe, Dante… Religion, too, gets a look-in, from a brief church-going episode to some weird (and not fully explored) fantasies about the devil, when Helen’s “naughty streak” gets the better of her.
Helen certainly possesses a knack for the creation of dysfunctional relationships and self-destruction, yet the downward tailspin of her anti-heroine is somehow appealing. Her hunger for experiences and exchanges is exciting, and there’s a time when the only sustenance she seems to crave is love and creativity (oh, and cigarettes and alcohol). It was Anaïs Nin who said, “Hunger is very good for stimulating the imagination”, and Helen does seem to gain a certain masochistic pleasure through starvation (“I saw her anxious eyes clicking over what was left of me”). Yet given an early introduction and running throughout the novel is the opposite theme of food and satiation (a stolen chocolate bar features in the second paragraph), and the sensuous description of tastes and textures and the memories jogged through association with different flavours and smells is the paste that holds the whole sandwich together.
Any Cop?: Despite some factual inconsistencies and continuity goofs (a road in Manchester ups sticks and the French river Rhône plots a new course, for example) this first title out of the Hidden Gem Press stable whets the appetite for more, from both the publisher and the writer.