The Glutton 
by A.K. Blakemore.
Granta, 336 pp., £14.99, September 2023, 978 1 78378 919 1
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The narrator​ of A.K. Blakemore’s first novel, The Manningtree Witches (2021), is a 19-year-old woman called Rebecca West. She lives with her tough, rowdy mother, the Beldam West, and their cat, Vinegar Tom, in a cramped cottage on the outskirts of Manningtree, a small port town in north Essex where the Stour widens into an estuary. Rebecca and the Beldam usually get by doing laundry and needlework, but it’s 1643, a year into the First English Civil War, which means the men are away fighting and the women have enough time on their hands to do their own mending.

Rebecca is impatient to get away from her mother – they share a room – and spies an escape route in Master John Edes, a mild-mannered shipping clerk who has been teaching her to read the gospel. But Edes is an associate of a sinister newcomer called Matthew Hopkins, who is on a mission to root out witchcraft. In wartime Manningtree, Puritan fervour is running high, and Hopkins finds no shortage of willing informants. People are already wary of the Beldam – those who cross her have a way of ending up dead – and she becomes a suspect after she is seen manhandling a boy who later becomes delirious and dies. Eventually, the Beldam and Rebecca are rounded up with several other disreputable women, including the ancient, one-legged outcast Widow Clarke. They are taken to a prison in Colchester where almost all of them are put to death.

Most of the characters in the novel are based on real figures. Hopkins was an industrious witchfinder and is thought to have had a hand in more than a hundred executions (of around five hundred in England during the early modern period). The confession of the real Rebecca West can be read online; the name Vinegar Tom was borrowed from one of the ‘spirit animals’ – a ‘long-legged greyhound’ – that Widow Clarke allegedly conjured while in prison.

‘When you’re writing about the past,’ Blakemore has said, ‘the bad guy and the good people is a foregone conclusion. They don’t require much moral untangling from the reader’s point of view.’ The Manningtree Witches leaves little doubt about who the villains are. Hopkins, with his glinting spurs and thin-lipped smile, is bad. Rebecca and the Beldam are good: they bring pottage to Widow Clarke in her hovel when the rest of the community seems content to let her starve.

Telling the story mostly from Rebecca’s perspective requires some creaky workarounds – she imagines several scenes she hasn’t witnessed with gratuitous panache – but Blakemore’s use of the first person also lends this otherwise clear-cut story some psychological complexity. The reader knows Rebecca is no sorcerer, but she isn’t so sure. ‘I am not superstitious – I am useful,’ she reassures herself, but she believes in the devil and is convinced that she’s ‘peculiar’. She has internalised the association between female lust and diabolical temptation, and her shame about her fledgling sexuality becomes embroiled with her fear of Satan. She worries that her ‘wantonness’ has unleashed an ‘uncanny sequence of events’: after fondling a cabbage while blindfolded as part of a sleepover game, she thinks she sees the devil in the sink and then has a macabre sex dream.

The relationship between mother and daughter is the most complex and engaging in the novel – far more so than Rebecca’s bland, if fateful, fling with Master Edes. She is full of resentment towards the Beldam, who at one point reveals that she almost cast Rebecca into the fire as a baby at the urging of an apparition. But the Beldam turns out to be heroically self-sacrificing. Her unflagging sense of humour is heroic too: she stares down the courthouse as she’s sentenced ‘with a look that says, this entertains me too’.

Blakemore’s claim that the past is a realm of ethical ‘foregone conclusions’ is obviously false – even if the frenzy to execute those accused of witchcraft isn’t especially morally ambiguous. The novel draws out the dangerous misogyny that underpinned the witch trials, but Blakemore’s dramatisation can be heavy-handed. Rebecca is given to tart commentary that often sounds like a crude, and slightly stale, appeal to contemporary readers: ‘Just like a man to suggest the most obvious thing in the world as though it might be a revelation to a woman’s cottony mind.’ At one point she describes the imperious Vinegar Tom as ‘very like a man, only lovable’. ‘My real interest was in the persecuted,’ Blakemore writes in her afterword, and one can’t help but feel that a less agenda-driven treatment of the witch trials might have uncovered more authentic and surprising resonances with the present.

In her second novel Blakemore tries to tell a more complicated story. The Glutton is also set during a revolutionary period – this time France in the late 18th century – and based on real events: the life of a peasant called Tarare who became notorious for his monstrous appetite (the medical historian Jan Bondeson has described him as ‘the foremost glutton of all times’). We meet Tarare, aged 27, dying in a Versailles hospital staffed by nuns. He is rumoured to have eaten a child, as well as ‘Corks and stones. Snakes and eels. Dogs and cats, alive’. Although weak, dazed by laudanum and, surprisingly, emaciated, he is chained to the bed and ‘must always be watched’. His minder is a young nun called Sister Perpetué, who, moved by some mixture of horrified curiosity and Christian sympathy, sits by his bed while he tells her the story of his sad, strange life.

In the flashbacks to his childhood in a village near Lyon, Tarare is presented as a sweet-natured if hapless child, who ‘greets every day … with a smile as blank and open as a hilltop’. But rural life is harsh and he falls prey to serial misfortune, abuse and exploitation. His father was beaten to death in a drunken brawl shortly after Tarare was born, leaving his mother to support the two of them through sex work and wet nursing. He is haunted by the death of a baby sister, whom his mother made him bury secretly in the forest. She eventually shacks up with Nollet, a thuggish salt smuggler, who batters Tarare with the blunt side of an axe and leaves him for dead in a wood.

The trauma leads him to become permanently ravenous. After Nollet’s beating, Tarare is ‘never not hungry’. Nothing – not bucketfuls of apple peel for the pigs, troughs of decaying offal meant for dogs, the belts, hats, dead rats and blind puppies lobbed at him in market squares – will ‘ease the empty ache of his belly’. He is adopted by a crew of vagrants whose leader realises he can monetise Tarare’s extraordinary ability to ingest things, turning him into a kind of circus act, as they travel from village to village. When he arrives at the hospital, the doctors subject him to a cruel, calamitous experiment in order to test his mettle as a ‘spy’ (really a kind of gastric courier), making him swallow a box containing a message and sending him behind enemy lines.

Tarare cuts a menacing figure, but once you learn about his past, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for him. His hunger is so obviously a terrible curse that Blakemore’s repeated attempts to put an ambivalent spin on it are redundant. ‘You are not a victim,’ Sister Perpetué says. ‘You are a vile, unpleasant man.’ ‘Can I not … be both?’ he replies. We’re told that he wasn’t ‘built for love’, despite ample evidence to the contrary (‘I love you very much … and I want to always take care of you,’ he tells his mother at one point). The purpose of the remark is to pave the way for Blakemore to plead Tarare’s case once more: ‘There was no true cruelty in his character.’ Few readers will need this spelled out.

Blakemore was a poet before she started writing fiction, and it shows. She has said that ‘poetry is the natural language I think in,’ and if such a thing exists, the opening sentences of her two novels may well be written in it. The Manningtree Witches begins: ‘A hill wet with brume of morning, one hawberry bush squalid with browning flowers.’ (You can imagine a line break after the comma separating those disconnected images.) The first paragraph of The Glutton is less lyrical, but has its own gloomy music:

They look like grave-figures, the way they move along the dim corridors between the dim rooms. It is because their long habits hide the movements of their limbs and the muted shuffle of their feet on the bare stone tiles. Because their long habits disguise the movements of their limbs and the muted shuffle of their feet on the bare stone tiles, they look like they are gliding, as though it is some outside force that compels them along the dim corridors and between the dim rooms.

Blakemore makes clear at the outset of both novels that her style is something we’re meant to notice. Her ability to devise a distinctive sound for each book is impressive, but the prose can feel self-conscious and overblown. While far from naturalistic, the first novel is more clearly situated. Blakemore’s father lives in Manningtree and she evokes the bay with almost acrobatic energy. The trouble is that the elaborately textured prose is less precise than cluttered: ‘A bright but frigid morning, the line of the coast brindled with the purple of sea aster, brittly salted’; ‘The low tide has littered the flats with stinking knots of bladder wrack and kelp, a detritus of fraying rope and broken traps.’

The Glutton is rendered with looser strokes, particularly in the sections about Tarare’s childhood, and has the feel of a fable or incantation: ‘The house is, for the most part, breathing softly through the draff of sleep. The house is, for the most part, hungover’; ‘What her master does is fetch his musket. What her master does is wake his sons.’ At times the repetition veers close to pastiche: ‘Tarare sits on his haunches by the fire and Tarare eats … He eats this very fast and it is good, and when he is done he wants more to eat’; ‘Everyone hates the miller because he is the miller, and the miller owns the mill.’

Blakemore’s taste for esoteric and baroque words also becomes tiresome: ‘feculent’, ‘violaceous’, ‘sapor’, ‘asterisms’, ‘garniture’, ‘verdigris’, ‘entheogen’, ‘ectomorph’, ‘raptorine’, ‘ascarids’, ‘gleets’, ‘craquelure’, ‘priapic’, ‘autogamous’ (as in, ‘Tarare’s joy in the world is huge and autogamous’). She once revealed in an interview that ‘ is my homepage.’ ‘“Dark” may not be the best specific word,’ Blakemore explained, ‘which leads me to use a really weird word … the juiciest word for that particular line.’ But variety for the sake of it leads to formulations that sound pompous or cryptic. When a mother sees her son ‘pouting’ in the bath, for example, she is ‘secretly pleased by the incipient masculinity evinced by his intransigence in the face of ablution’.

Reviewers have praised the vividness of Blakemore’s language, and no doubt some readers of The Manningtree Witches enjoyed the description of women’s fans ‘churning up bemingled emanations of rosewater perfume, womb-clot, sweat and cinders’. There are some fine passages in the book, as when Rebecca, studying her mother’s face, ‘can see the choice deceptions jostling in her eyes like trout under the bright top of a stream’. But many of the similes are arch and silly: ‘Dark clouds flex and leer … with a renewed sense of commitment to pathetic fallacy.’ Others are too cerebral; they arrest but do not clarify. After hearing gossip about her crush on Master Edes, Rebecca describes ‘a feeling of invasion, except glossed with understanding of that invasion’s essential triviality, like when a gnat crawls into your tear duct to die of a May morning’.

Blakemore’s delight in ‘the euphony of certain words’ often outstrips her ability to conjure a clear picture in the reader’s mind. ‘The cow lowers her head to nibble at a frill of mallow,’ she writes in The Glutton. This is pleasingly mellifluous, but we’re being invited to admire the scheme of pretty words and don’t really see the animal. Or consider the patterning of vowels in the following sentences: ‘Long gold grasses, tranced by the warmth. Tarare rolls over in his sleep and throws his arm outward, sending the riled flies in helices around him.’ ‘Tranced by the warmth’ is wonderful, and ‘riled flies in helices’ is aptly dizzying. But the phrase is also distracting, and while ‘helices’ looks cool, it might take you a moment to realise it’s the plural of ‘helix’, and then another to recall what a helix actually looks like. This delay between sound and sense may be desirable in poetry, but in a novel it doesn’t seem the most effective way of describing the motion of flies.

The Manningtree Witches and The Glutton are both driven by an appetite for the ‘juiciest’ words – for ‘how they feel when you say them, or look at them’. But if a writer seems more invested in verbal effects than in what she is communicating, disillusionment sets in. I came to doubt that Blakemore was focused on what she was telling me. The flashy surface of her prose seems like a diversionary tactic – as though she fears the stories themselves cannot sustain our interest, nor perhaps her own.

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