In this dark and toothsome collection, Anna Vaught enters a strange world of apocryphal feasts and disturbing banquets. Famished explores the perils of selfish sensuality and trifle while child rearing, phantom sweetshop owners, the revolting use of sherbet in occult rituals, homicide by seaside rock, and the perversion of Thai Tapas. Once, that is, you’ve been bled dry from fluted cups by pretty incorporeals and learned about consuming pride in the hungriest of stately homes.
Famished: seventeen stories to whet your appetite and ruin your dinner.
Earlier this year I read and reviewed Anna Vaught’s brilliant novel Saving Lucia (out now from Bluemoose Books), and I was so taken with her style and skill that I jumped at the chance to read her new collection of short stories, out in September with Influx Press. Thank you again to Anna and to Jordan Taylor-Jones for sending me an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Saving Lucia dazzled me with its intellectual and linguistic acrobatics, and the short stories in Famished left me similarly breathless and impressed. The notes here are darker, and Vaught takes full advantage of the short story’s potential for sharp shocks and gut punches, showing masterful control of some wonderfully outlandish plotlines. The theme of food is approached and exploited from a multitude of angles, so that the collection is at once cohesive and varied: a veritable feast of literary exploration.
The standout stories for me include the two opening stories, ‘Cave Venus et Stella’ and ‘Feasting; Fasting,’ with the second feeling almost like a continuation of the first. Both are related in the present tense, by a powerfully idiosyncratic narrative voice which reappears throughout the collection, addressing the reader from a position both authoritative and collusive. The sly horror of the fluted cups and “umbrageous inhabitants” of ‘Cave Venus’ finds an echo in the ghostly presences in the French house in the second story; and later, in ‘Bread and Salt’, I felt as if I was meeting the same beings again, in Russia. There are patterns circling here, which warrant careful rereadings to fully uncover. ‘The Choracle’ is another of my favourites; an entirely unexpected and original take on the familiar ‘judgement at the school gates’ faced by the protagonist, Donna, who is wonderfully described as “the jarred pickled egg to your smashed avocado on sourdough.” Her sweet, magical revenge provides the same kind of delicious humour as the ending of ‘Hot Cross Buns, Sharp Teeth and a Tongue.’ ‘Trimalchio Jones,’ a gloriously lavish and chilling combination of Petronius and and F.Scott Fitzgerald (such fizzing intellectual leaps no longer surprise me with Vaught – her brilliance is gleaming and entirely her own) is very nearly my favourite piece in the whole collection, allowing as it does for some of the most excessively gorgeous descriptions of the bounties of the table and the bubbling unease of such feasting.
The trio of sweetshop stories scattered through the collection again provide a clue to the clever tapestry that is being woven here – there is a subtle sense of revisiting without repetition, which is mirrored in the way phrases and language, often deliciously archaic, are repeated in different stories. The final story, ‘Sweetie,’ reminded me strongly of the section in Roald Dahl’s autobiography, Boy, in which he and his friends play tricks on the horrid sweetshop owner, a reading memory I probably haven’t thought of in twenty years.
Memory and past experiences are incredibly important in this collection, particularly in the four most ‘personal’ stories, as I think of them: ‘What He Choked On,’ ‘A Tale of Tripe,’ ‘Shame’ and ‘Shadow Babies’ Supper’. The author’s assertion in the acknowledgements that “more of this book is true than you might imagine” is really quite poignant, and adds to the depth of feeling in these stories in particular. In ‘What He Choked On,’ we move from the present tense of the first two, more apocryphal stories into the “multi-layered suffering” of the past. The metaphor involving trifle is moving and profound, which are not words normally associated with the layered dessert. This is Vaught’s skill: like the narrator of the seriously creepy story ‘Shadow Babies’ Supper,’ she breaks through the “veneer” of daily life, of the ordinary, and reveals the “dull horror” beneath, but also the truth.
I was captivated by these stories, wrapped up in Vaught’s extraordinary imagination, and in utter agreement with the young man in Cave Venus who has “a tiny flutter in his heart for the unusual patina of her syntax” – this is exactly how I feel about Anna Vaught’s classical yet unsettling style in this collection. Her novel was more joyous, and perhaps more hopeful, but in these stories I feel as if the author is giving generously of herself, cultivating a relationship with the reader that is best expressed in the final lines of ‘Nanny Lovett and Pop Todd’:
“Come sit down, my darling. I believe in complicity and its special heat.
See what I have. Eat.”
Do it: eat, devour this book – you will not be disappointed by the magnificent feast provided.
Famished will be published by Influx Press on 10th September 2020, and is available to preorder here.