William Leith

Gut instincts

Julie Powell wrote Julie and Julia, a book (and now a film) in which she described her attempts to cook a huge number of recipes by the cookery writer Julia Child.

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Julie Powell

Penguin, pp. 294, £

Julie Powell wrote Julie and Julia, a book (and now a film) in which she described her attempts to cook a huge number of recipes by the cookery writer Julia Child. I haven’t read that book, but I get the impression that Powell, 30-ish and married to her childhood sweetheart, was going nuts, and used the cooking as a sort of therapy. Well, here she’s going nuts again, and it’s pretty serious.

This time, she decides to become a butcher. At the start of the book, we find her slicing up a piece of liver and getting blood on her face. She tells us her troubles, which amount to the fact that, while she’s still married to Eric, and still loves him, she’s having a mad affair with someone else. She is comfortable with Eric. But she’s drawn to this other man in an unhealthy, self-punitive way. She’s out of control.

Early in the book, she tells us she has a theory about Jack the Ripper. ‘I am by now fairly confident,’ she says, ‘that should I want to surgically excise a streetwalker’s liver, I could manage it. I will even confess that I can sort of imagine the appeal.’ She continues: ‘Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an advocate for slashing prostitutes’ throats and rummaging through their innards as a valid lifestyle choice.’

And then she tells us her Jack the Ripper theory. It’s more or less this: if you slash a prostitute to death, and then feel remorse, butchering the corpse might be a sort of atonement — for Jack, it might have represented ‘the tiny kernel of sanity left to him.’

My God, I would hate to read this book if I was poor old Eric. He comes across as slow and steady, and sometimes cuddly. But what his wife wants is brutal — or, at the very least, vigorous — sex with her lover, and she keeps on telling us about it. This other chap, who she calls D, is ‘skinny, with hooded eyes, Mick Jagger lips and a weak chin.’

She’s obsessed with D, and tells us about their sex life:

He slapped my ass, bit me, hard, left bruises all over my body that I had to take care to hide, dark and mottled and as distinct in shape as the bites taken out of surfboards by sharks. He had me figured out.

Anyway, while this affair is happening, Julie — obsessive, horny, self-absorbed — becomes a butcher’s assistant. She cleaves, chops, slices, rakes, and grinds her way through pigs, cows, and poultry. She gets covered in blood. She cuts herself. She gets sweaty and smelly. She texts her lover. Meat, and blood, and love, and sex, mingle together in the reader’s mind. It’s not subtle. But it’s not inept, either. She makes you see how butchery might be enjoyable, even cathartic.

Then she decides to travel around for a while. She goes to Argentina, where macho men hack at sides of beef, or maybe even whole cows. Pondering the men in her life, she decides that, while Eric is ‘singular’, ‘D is special too, because of how fiercely he fucks me, because he masturbates with his left hand and eats with his right…’ Later, our heroine goes to the Carpathians, and then Africa, where she drinks blood and is menaced, in a sexual manner, by a horrible creep.

At the end, she comes back home to New York. She sees D again, and finds she is less drawn to him than before. A tiny kernel of sanity seems to appear. You’re left with the notion that things might work out, in the end, with Eric. This is not quite a book about butchery. It’s a book about sex hiding behind a book about butchery. It’s part of the new-ish genre in which intelligent women tell us how much they like sex. As part of this genre, it’s not at all bad. I liked it, I suspect, much more than Eric must have done. But perhaps not as much as D.