Friday, January 5, 2018

Review: The Reluctant Cannibals by Ian Flitcroft

I hadn't even finished reading out the back cover copy for this book before members of my book club were shaking their heads vehemently and saying no and nope as fast as they could. Interestingly, their reactions mirror the reactions of the characters in the book when the word cannibalism (sorry, it's anthropophagy according to the character suggesting it because that somehow makes the concept more palatable--snort!) is first brought up. All I have to say is that it was their loss since this was a slyly funny and highly entertaining read about morality and taboo set in the normally staid, hidebound world of academia.

It's 1969 in Oxford. St. Jerome's College is the epitome of the hallowed halls of learning, with a gatekeeper who regularly yells at students to keep off the grass, gowned faculty and students, tutorials, crews of eight, and so on. Intriguingly, St. Jerome's is also the site of a secret dining society, the Shadow Faculty of Gastronomic Science, and one of the gastronomically adventurous dinners they throw is going to bring them some rather unwanted attention. Japanese diplomat, Takeshi Tokoro, the guest of one of the shadow faculty members prepares the potentially deadly delicacy of fugu for the assembled company. An incorrect preparation means death. And Tokoro does indeed do one small thing that ensures his own death right at the table. Now this group of six gourmands, all members of the faculty and staff of St. Jerome's, is garnering attention and threatened with forced disbanding. First, the vice-chancellor, a veritable stick in the mud whose taste buds run to bland nursery food, gets the group in his sights for causing him to have to hush up an international debacle that could have cause the college's reputation grave harm. Then a snobbish undergraduate whose opinion of his own importance is excessive, the Honorable Matthew Kingsley-Hampton, takes offense that he has not been invited to join this secret society (assuming incorrectly that it's made up off fellow undergraduates like himself) and so determines to expose the society, but mostly through manipulating others around him to do his dirty work.

The best thing to do given the climate at the school would be for the shadow faculty to either skip one of their scheduled end of term meals or at least not court controversy in any way. But Professor Arthur Plantagenet, one of the founding members of the group, an eccentric, and lifelong food and wine enthusiast, discovers that his unbridled appetites have left his heart failing and his time on earth much shorter than anticipated. Rather than fighting fate, he devises a plan for his remaining time and for what to do with his remains after death and his plan will embroil the shadow faculty in a situation the likes of which they've never before faced. He is going to donate a piece of himself for consumption at one of the shadow faculty's culinary adventures, looking on this as a scientific donation to determine not only what people taste like but if he tastes better than the animals we do eat. The others are horrified and when the time comes, as executors of the good professor's will, they will face moral, legal, and ethical dilemmas as they contemplate the horror (or is it intrigue?) of eating their late colleague.

Flitcroft has managed to write a hilarious novel about one of the biggest taboos in our society. The characters are wonderful, from the pragmatic Augustus Bloom to the spiritually agonizing chaplain Charles Pinker, from the unpleasant bully Matthew Kingsley-Hampton to his meek and downtrodden roommate Patrick Eccles. The novel feels madcap and somehow filled with hijinks even though it really isn't. The shadow faculty can be pretentious in their gustatory delights and pompous opinions but they are also endearing and the reader enjoys spending time with them as they go into raptures at their over the top dinners and as they spar with each other over the subject of eating Arthur's left thigh. Sounds wonderful and crazy, right? It is. This novel has it all: decadent, mouth-wateringly described feasts, a ghost or two in the wine cellar, undergraduate shenanigans, a moral and ethical dilemma, a wet blanket of an administrator, a secret society with declining membership, and plenty of gallows humor. Clever, funny, and original, after reading this rollicking tale I might be a bit wary of eating anything with Flitcroft but I'll happily read more of his work.

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