Consumed, Caroline Hamilton’s first novel, is an assault on the senses—not just taste but smell, texture, sound, sight. Its territory is kitchens and kitchen gardens, markets, restaurants, gourmet stores, farms. Cellars, too, although by the time you reach those scenes, you are in the thrall of a new kind of territory, one best left for readers to discover for themselves.
The novel is driven by a first-person voice, a present-tense consciousness: the voice of Amelia, a lone, food-obsessed soul hungering for more than just food, with a singular view of the world and a penchant for the absurd. I wondered at first whether she has Asperger’s but she is too complex a character to wear such an easy label.
Hamilton’s prose draws readers in from the first paragraph: a series of direct questions that seduce us with chocolate frosting and announce Amelia as no ordinary narrator. Descriptions of food are sometimes sumptuous and sensuous, sometimes raw and visceral, sometimes just charming; for example, Amelia’s observation of pig hocks lined up on a store counter for a difficult-to-please customer:
ankles touching, feet together, like debutantes expectantly waiting their turn to dance.
In her search for the secret ingredient in a perfect sauerkraut, Amelia finds Katarina, a feisty elderly Polish woman who becomes her mentor and brings light, love and purpose to Amelia’s solitary life. Katarina teaches her that food is life, and both require death, and the scenes involving the backyard killing of a chicken and, later, on Gianni’s pig farm are uncomfortable to read, as indeed they should be.
The death of Katarina pivots the story completely. Amelia’s grief is intense and deeply affecting, and then becomes shocking, and the meaning of stray threads of suggestion are suddenly clear, revealing the story of Amelia’s destiny that they have been weaving. At this point, the pace accelerates, racing towards Amelia’s outrageous moment of triumph—something I think I’m unlikely ever to forget!
Consumed draws on myths involving the strength of women: different versions of Vassalissa the Brave, and Lilith in the Garden of Eden. It is also laced with recipes and lavish devotions to food that will make you hungry as you read.
This ambitious novel won the 2008 FAW Christina Stead Award for Fiction. I found it compelling, quirky and original.
Consumed by Caroline Hamilton (ABC Books, 2008)
This review counts towards my total for the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.