Sunday, 22 November 2015

Four Kinds of Fish

"Day of Atonement", Jay Rayner

There are times when you end up with a novel that confounds expectations. Tempted by a free promotion on it for Yom Kippur, Jay Rayner's Day of Atonement has been sitting on my phone for a while, and when, stuck for something to read on the tube, it was opened, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.

The last cookery novel I can recall reading (and I'm sure there's been something since) was going through Anthony Bourdain's Bone in the Throat and Gone Bamboo, which managed to be simultaneously entertaining and depressingly dark, so in terms of expectation management Rayner's Day of Atonement has a bit of baggage.

Starting with an elderly ex con on the contemporary Kent coast there's an initial feeling that we might be in Bourdain territory, but that's soon stripped away and we've got an engaging wide ranging rites of passage cultural narrative of London Jewish entrepreneurs through the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. There's a rich sense of place and culture with the distinctive argot of London's Jewish community richly captured combining veracity and an ability to make you smile.

Deep down Day of Atonement isn't really a crime novel, but it's not one where the expected deeply bad things happen. Somehow while there are where you suspect it might be about to turn all a little bit Goodfellas it doesn't. People don't end up necessarily in a shallow grave, and a level of cocaine dependency in the 1970s shouldn't really come as a huge surprise to anyone.

So Day of Atonement was free, so I can't even ask a question of whether even as a discount purchase, was it worth it? But there is a more sophisticated question revolving around whether it rewarded my time and here happily things can be a lot more conclusive: of course it was. Mal and Solly become characters whose stories compel as they move from adolescence to old age, and while it is at heart a morality play, there is a sense of predominantly reasonable wholesome fun (even including Judy the Blow Job Queen) that suffuses the novel.

And yes, it does make clear that the epitome of a good and lavish party is making sure that you don't just have three, but four fishes served. This is probably a life lesson for all of us, gentile or otherwise.

Jay Rayner makes it clear that this is a pre 9/11 novel, a product thus of the very short 21st century where there was a window to see the world through something of a different lens, which gives Day of Atonement it's particular flavour. Try it, I think it's one you might relish, a little like chicken soup.

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