"Except that we are at sea I would believe that I had been abducted by a travelling circus."
Eli Brown’s infectious romp of a novel has a thoroughly modern sensibility dressed in the garb of yore. It is the early 1800’s and Owen Wedgwood is chef to Lord Ramsey, one of the chief shareholders of the Pendleton Trading Company in England which trades opium for tea, silk, and spices in Asia. Enter Hannah Mabbot, pirate extraordinaire, defender of the underdog, and avenger of the exploited.
”Then entered a pillar of menace, a woman in an olive long-coat. Her red hair hung loose over her shoulders. She sauntered to the middle of the room, her coat opening to reveal jade-handled pistols. Using a chair as a stepping stool she walked upon the dining table to Lord Ramsey’s plate and stood there, looking down, as is she had just conquered Kilimanjaro. Her boots added inches to her already long frame…There…was the Shark of the Indian Ocean, Mad Hannah Mabbot, Back-from-the-dead Red…”Hannah kills Lord Ramsey for his greed and sins against humanity, and takes Owen captive on her pirate ship, charging him with concocting a gourmet meal for her once a week on pain of his life.
Author Brown’s delicious confection reminds us what we loved about stories of old, and adds that sine qua non of righteous vengeance to sustain our sensibilities. It may be that readers are especially susceptible to feats of culinary desperation because we are too busy reading to shop, so finding Wedgwood creating real cuisine from weevily flour and rancid lard is positively inspiring. Some sea captains for large sailing vessels in my family surprised me with the news that those aboard ship rarely partake in the (obvious to me) fresh seafood surrounding them, as they are not fishermen but sailors, but one of the Japanese sailors aboard the Flying Rose, Mabbot’s pirate ship, always has a line dragging from the aft rail, saving Wedgwood more than once in his search for a main course.
This is escapist fun of the best sort, effortlessly inventive, reminiscent of childhood summers, yet with truths adults will recognize and may take to heart. Once, Mabbot must throw overboard the treasure she has looted from Pendleton ships in order to speed her progress away from danger:
”The men will be bitter for having lost their silver, though it saved their lives. It is a complicated thing. With money in their pockets they become lazy and contrary. Heavy and slow, as does the Rose itself…A small part of me is glad to be rid of it. When my men are hungry, with death upon their heels, they work hard and never complain and enjoy their own company. They sing every night.”
And, on the pain one feels when a close friend or lover dies:
”I’ve had this pain. To tell you it will go away would be a lie. It will never go away. But, if you live long enough, it will cease to torture and will instead flavor you. As we rely on the bitterness of strong tea to wake us, this too will become something you can use.”
And on the sanctity of eating the flesh of animals:
”I thought I would take pleasure in skinning that watchful rabbit, but now that it was still, it engendered in me a tenderness for all fragile flesh. I sharpened a knife until it shone, then skinned and cleaned the rabbit, trying to make each cut a gesture of respect. Loathe to waste any part of the animal, I set brains and hide aside for tanning…As I progressed deeper into the body I felt a mystery revealing itself to me and began to pray, not with words but with simple cooking, a prayer not for the soul of the rabbit exactly but for the generous blending of its life and Mabbot’s. She had fed and loved it and now its flesh would become hers and mine, and in this way I understood that all beings lived only to feed each other as even the lion lays down for the worm. In the striations of the rabbit’s muscle I saw eons of breath and death.”
And finally, we have a love story. It has a prudish man’s restraint, told in the voice of Wedgwood, who denies for ever-so-long his interest in Mabbot and in being at sea with pirates. But lord knows how we all love conquering the inhibitions of prudish men—and how much more satisfying and telling it is for the woman to be the instigator. If men are permanently “on” for sex, their sexual proclivities have less value, as it were. ‘Barky holes of trees’ as John Barth (The Sot-Weed Factor) has written, would do as well. Women, more discriminating perhaps, may tell us more by their choices.
A fine choice for a summer read. This book deserves to be widely enjoyed for the sheer fun it offers. It is something apart from the usual, and one must always take note of derring-do.
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