Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Nutmeg by Maria Goodwin

Meg is growing up in a world of food filled fantasy; where her first tooth was so sharp her mother used her as a can opener, and eating too many apples once left her spitting pips. Then, age five, she is humiliated in front of the other children at school and turns her back on the world of fiction, deciding to let logic rule her everyday thoughts and deeds.

Years later, Meg's mother falls ill, and as she struggles to deal with the situation in an orderly fashion, her mother remains cocooned in her obsession with cookery, refusing to face up to her illness.

Slowly, Meg uncovers the truth about her childhood and is now faced with a humbling decision: to live in a cold harsh reality, or envelop herself in a wonderful world of make-believe.

Maybe life isn't defined as fact or fiction perhaps it can include truth, lies, and everything in between.

Amazon description

I want you to understand that these are all my mother's words, not mine. I myself am mentally stable and under no illusion that any of this ever happened.

Meg's mother's fantasies may be dismissed by her no-nonsense daughter, but is Meg right to do so? Meg's scientist boyfriend, Mark, regards her mother's fantasies as deliberate lies and urges Meg to confront her. It becomes clear that the mother's fantasies are a way of dealing with trauma in her past, perhaps also a way of protecting her daughter, but that now she believes in them. We have seen fantasy used to portray psychology in other books, e.g. The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce. So it is not a surprise to read that Maria Goodwin wrote the book during her final year as a counselor and was influenced by the study of psychological defenses. It is probably not an accident that magic realism emerged at the same time as psychoanalysis. 

Meg's mother isn't the only character to have an fantasy take on the world. There is also Ewan, the young gardener. What do we make of him and his talk of slugs responding well to honest explanations? But he is shown to be more self aware: I might sometimes have my head in the clouds... but that doesn't mean I don't have my feet on the ground.  And Meg observes how the frog he speaks to obeys him and leaves the garden. 

This book poses a key question that is at the heart of magic realism: Is fantasy a better way of describing/understanding/dealing with the world than realism?
Ewan certainly understands the value of myth and fairytale in answering the big questions in life. He tells Meg the tale of Pandora's box at a key point in the story. The contrast with scientist Mark is obvious. Mark may know how the world is put together, but he doesn't understand the why. He certainly has no empathy with Meg or other people. I could criticize the rather two-dimensional portrayal of Mark and the obvious set-up of Meg's relationship with Ewan. But then this story is a fable, and fables work to predestined patterns. The ending therefore seemed predictable, even inevitable, but then there was a doubt in my mind about the neighbours' response to the death of Meg's mother, was it another example of fantasy?

This is a fun, feelgood book. The mother's tales are wonderfully inventive, but the author knows when to bring us down to earth just when the fantasy is about to become tedious. The book has been compared to Chocolat. I can see why - there is of course the magic of food, but more importantly at the heart of the book is the mother/daughter relationship, which is beautifully portrayed. And yes I had tears in my eyes at the end. 

Nutmeg is being released as The Storyteller's Daughter in Australia and New Zealand and was released in the US as From the Kitchen of Half Truth.

I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair review.

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