A Review of The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester

One of my greatest pleasures is eating, so I must cook. I savour, consequently I cook. I like tasty food made with fresh elements that address all four of our tastes – salt, sour, sweet and bitter – to create a complementary whole. Of course, there is now the fifth taste, unami, the expanding universe within soy sauce, that can amplify other inputs. I have just made an English pie, with chicken, mushrooms, a little diced bacon, seasoning and fresh herbs. It was moistened with stock and an egg before being baked in my own short-crust. Fresh gravy and vegetables alongside is all it will need. It consequently has sweet, salt and bitter, but lacks sourness. A squeeze of lemon on the vegetables will compensate.

For the expansion, take one novel closely related to cooking and read. Do try the recipes, but proceed with care. Cook things right by before committing to taste. John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure is my recommendation. It’s a highly original, highly informative cookbook written by one Tarquin Winot, an expert in the field.

In one of the most original books I have ever read, John Lanchester creates a real anti-hero. Too often the concept is ironed onto a character who is just a naughty boy doing naughty, often repulsive things, the concept of “hero” being often ignored. Tarquin Winot, the anti-hero of The Debt to Pleasure, is a bright and learned cook. He is also highly creative, using elements that only those who might cook with a purpose would choose to use. He is also something of a psychopath, perhaps. That is for you to estimate. But he has survived to write his cookbook and seemingly savours his retirement, courtesy of those he has fed.

The Debt to Pleasure is a superb novel. Tarquin’s narrative draws the reader, perhaps unsuspecting, into his world, evoking an empathy with and for the character. That we have as in addition only slightly got to know this bright cook only becomes apparent as we proceed by his life, a life he has peppered with his personal peccadilloes. But above all, Tarquin Winot is both a planner and a perfectionist. His culinary creations are thought by, drafted like dramas to provoke particular responses, to unprotected to pre-meditated ends. They are also successful, appreciated by those who consume his concoctions, and ultimately they succeed in precisely the way that he plans and executes.

Throughout, John Lanchester’s prose is a delight, as stimulating to the mind as his character’s creations might be to the palate. Florid and extravagant it might be at times, perhaps too much butter and cream for some diets. But The Debt to Pleasure is a satisfying, surprising and ultimately fulfilling read. Tarquin fulfils both aspects of the anti-hero and ultimately we are left to grapple with the character of self-obsession and selfishness.

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