The Reluctant Cannibals by Ian Flitcroft

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The Reluctant Cannibals by Ian Flitcroft

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: A jolly group of Oxford dons sets up a taboo-shattering secret dining society in the late 1960s. English eccentricity is at its finest in this surprisingly delightful debut.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 381 Date: October 2013
Publisher: Legend Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781909593596

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Over a truffled turkey at their college Christmas dinner in 1964, a group of Oxford dons decide to join their love of fine food and drink with their mutual appreciation for nineteenth-century French philosopher of food Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (author of the 1825 classic La Physiologie du Goût, or The Physiology of Taste) by forming a secret dining society. Together these fellows of St Jerome's College form the Shadow Faculty of Gastronomic Science, a group that will continue meeting to share new and daring culinary experiences until Oxford agrees to set up a proper gastronomic school of its own.

The merry fellows indulge in many a resplendent feast, always in search of fresh tastes at the dawn of molecular gastronomy: witchetty grubs, 'prairie oysters', sow's uterus, horse, beaver tail, and liquid nitrogen ice cream are just a few of the peculiar dishes that grace their table – always supplemented by a fleet of bottles from the haunted wine cellar below the college. As Juvenal said of the Romans, 'They ransack all the elements for new flavours'.

The trouble is that the members of the shadow faculty keep dying: one met with an unfortunate end during an experiment with a high-voltage Van de Graaff generator, another 'died a fine Proustian death by choking on a Madeleine several years previously'. Worst of all was the disastrous dinner of Trinity term 1969, attended by the Japanese cultural attaché. On the menu was an Oriental delicacy known as Fugu, a puffer fish carefully prepared to remove all traces of its toxic internal organs – except this time the chef missed a bit. The poison left the poor victim with 'mouth opening and closing in a silent and ironic parody of the creature he had just eaten'.

The shadow faculty, now known wryly as the 'declining dining society', have managed to escape this calamity without causing an international incident, but still they are not all safe. Dr Arthur Plantagenet, twenty-stone professor of ancient history, has been informed that his heart will not hold out much longer. Determined to put his death to the service of gastronomy, Plantagenet puts a startling stipulation in his will and begins 'curing' himself (and not in the healing sense) in advance with a combination of spirits, pipe smoke and spices.

Meanwhile, a couple of tenacious undergraduates find out about the Fugu incident from last term, and a mortuary worker with loose lips divulges the rather peculiar operation he was recently asked to perform on a body prior to cremation. With the police and university hierarchy bearing down on them, the fellows of the shadow faculty will not find it easy to adhere to the bizarre strictures of Arthur's will.

Flitcroft's novel is full of memorable characters, including protagonist Dr Augustus Bloom, a lecturer in physiology, Patrick Eccles, the hapless undergraduate who stumbles onto sordid St Jerome's mysteries, Charles Pinker, a chaplain who is trying desperately to stick to his convictions, Potts the sullen college porter, and 'Mary Frances', or the American chef M.F.K. Fisher, who makes a delightful cameo appearance at the final dinner. It is a great shame indeed that the late Richard Griffiths is not still here to portray Arthur Plantagenet on film.

The Reluctant Cannibals has a jolly collegiate atmosphere, filled with practical jokes and pranks, pub crawls and punting down the Cherwell. It reminded me of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat, Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People is Wrong, or perhaps Graham Swift's Booker Prize winner, Last Orders, in which a group of bibulous friends fulfil their fallen comrade's last wishes. Flitcroft himself studied medicine at Oxford, and so can affectionately evoke 1960s university life with trips to the Covered Market and strolls along Dodgson's Walk at Christ Church Meadow. He portrays the theatrical dining society meals with all the pomp and delight of Heston Blumenthal's television feasts, and manages his more preposterous plot elements with a light touch.

Cannibalism (or 'anthropophagy'¸ as Arthur prefers to call it) might seem a morbid subject for a novel, but in Flitcroft's entirely light-hearted treatment, the reader can only see the absurdity of the situation and celebrate British eccentricity at its finest. There is no Hannibal Lecter gruesomeness here, only good-humoured English fun.

It is easy to be prejudiced against both small independent publishers and debut novelists, but Legend Press and Ian Flitcroft confounded all my expectations with this thoroughly charming read. It is no surprise The Reluctant Cannibals is an Irish Writers' Centre Novel Fair Award winner and has also been shortlisted for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. Many thanks to Legend Press for providing a review copy.

Further reading suggestion: For another terribly funny and terribly English read, pick up Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe. We have had great luck with books from Legend Press before; why not try one of their other offerings, such as A is for Angelica by Iain Broome or Nutmeg by Maria Goodin? We can also offer you Savage Blood by Alex Chance.

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