by Sarah Hilary
It’s a special kind of alchemy when a writer lets you taste the words on the page — not black ink on white wood pulp, but the waxy acid-yellow of lemons, or an iron-rich tang of blood. Visceral writing is my favourite kind. I want to see and hear and smell and taste the world I’m reading about. These books will grab you by the tonsils and never let you go.
1. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
Leningrad, September 1941. The dead of winter. Snow in the streets, ice inside the houses. No food for weeks. Resourceful Anna feeds her starving family first on wallpaper paste, before boiling leather to make soup. A tribute to Dunmore’s skill that, after pages of feeling the taut hunger in the house, you smack your lips at the prospect.
2. Serenade by James M. Cain
Surely the greatest meal in one of the greatest crime novels of all time. As our hero says, ‘Well, brother, you can have your Terrapin Maryland. It’s a noble dish, but it’s not Iguana John Howard Sharp.’ Caught by the woman he’s just assaulted, cooked alive in a pot in a desecrated Mexican church, this iguana should leave a nasty taste in your mouth, but that sticky, tender soup is something else.
3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I suspect Humbert’s Pin, a blend of gin and pineapple juice, has a sweet, stern flavour. A tang of forbidden fruit, a splash of mother’s ruin; the weeper’s drink. He writes, ‘A reek of sap mingled with the pineapple … the gin and Lolita were dancing in me.’ And there, in a single buzz on your tastebuds, is the whole thirsty rotten core of the story, so expertly wrought.
4. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
Peanut butter soup, ‘a playful but mysterious little dish,’ is followed by red snapper with violets and pine nuts. A step up from leather soup, but not by much. It’s one of my chief regrets that Patrick Bateman isn’t dining out in this day and age; I’d love to listen to him laying into quinoa and kale.
5. Chocolat by Joanne Harris
Better than any cookbook (no cooking required) this is a story steeped in scents and flavours. Bittersweet, piquant and delicious. Not only the chocolate, but every meal is brought to your tongue by well-chosen words.
6. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
What do I taste when I think of this book? Black tar, scorched earth, and the parched inside of my own mouth. And — for one miraculous, syrup-slippery, golden moment — tinned peaches. Eaten in a bunker, in the book’s only breathing space. A bright burst of taste that sustains you through to the bitter end.
7. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
I’m still trying to get the taste of this one from between my teeth: ‘Bones from the evening meal, covered in white sauce that had gone hard’. Something about that sauce stays with me; like eating someone else’s dental plaque.
8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Four words. Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. Say it out loud. You can taste it, can’t you?
9. Hannibal by Thomas Harris
Not the best of Harris’s books by a long stretch, but I have a weakness for ‘a portion of Krendler’s brain—from the prefrontal lobe—sautéed in a pan with shallots and white wine.’ Way to cleanse our palates of the fava beans, Thomas.
10. Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl
Mary Maloney cooked her leg of lamb straight from the freezer. I’ve often wondered whether it tasted as good as fresh lamb, or if the policemen who belched as they ate it, ended up with food poisoning, on top of everything else. It’s terrible the way a crime writer’s mind works.