Sam Kitchener

Something filthy by return

Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment opens in second world war London.

Something filthy by return
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Gerard Woodward

Picador, pp. 338, £

Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment opens in second world war London.

Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment opens in second world war London. Tory Pace, a tired and drawn ‘mother-of-three and wife-to-one’, works alongside other patriotic but ‘grey’ women, packing gelatine for the war effort. One evening, she receives a letter from her POW husband, Donald, requesting a ‘really filthy’ reply, by ‘return of post’.

At first, she feels unwilling and unable to respond. An affair with the dirty-talking owner of the gelatine factory, however, provides her with the requisite guilt-stricken motivation, and some excellent material. The second half of the book then illustrates the effects of this wartime loosening of moral norms on the Pace family following Donald’s return.

A published poet as well as a novelist, Woodward has a successful line in British domestic eccentricity. His trilogy of novels featuring the raffish and boozy Jones family, which includes the Booker nominated I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (2004), in particular, received warm praise. With this, his fourth book, he has decided to stick with the basics of what has proved in the past a winning (or at least a nominated) formula.

There are graceful comic touches in this portrait of lower middle-class life, and at the book’s heart are some stimulating thoughts on our repression of our animal natures, and the liberating, if traumatic, ways in which war can affect this. Unfortunately Woodward lacks both precision and élan, and the prose for the most part is clumsy. Instead of talking like people, his characters speak in a weird mix of half-hearted contemporary diction and unconvincing poetic comparisons:

‘Can’t I change afterwards, Mama? My body feels like it is bound with red hot iron hoops.’

When Tory gives birth to a love child, her waters break ‘with the pop and gush of a Roman candle’.

Woodward has a tendency simply to state his ideas. ‘The ugliness of matter is not the problem, it is the ugliness of people’s hearts’, a character explains towards the end. If the truth can be put so baldly, one wonders why Woodward bothered writing a novel exploring it? Nourishment too often feels like Donald and Tory’s sex before the war —perfunctory. And if the author doesn’t care, then why should we?