Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson
Fernet Branca, the bitter Italian spirit, flows through the new novel by Whitbread winning author James Hamilton-Paterson; his characters seem to drink nothing else and bottles of the stuff crop up at various pivotal points in the plot. It’s an idiosyncratic device that typifies his broadly humorous style.
Ghost writer Gerald Samper is looking forward to a tranquil existence in the Tuscan hills, to the seclusion and the peace and quiet that he needs to pen his biographies of famous sporting types and devote more time to his passion for cooking. Samper’s culinary proclivities are unusual to say the least, his recipes include ‘Mussels in Chocolate’ and ‘Lychees on Toast.’ Something of a snob, this doesn’t stop Samper from regarding himself as a gastronomic genius and his opinion of his other abilities don’t trail far behind.
His hillside solitude is soon interrupted by the arrival of a new inhabitant in the house neighbouring his; Marta is an Eastern European composer, new to Italy, commissioned to score the new film of a legendary Italian director. Though both characters are displaced from their home countries (Gerald is English; Marta is from a corrupt ex-Soviet outpost dubbed Voynovia) to say that they fail to warm to one another is an understatement.
What follows is a farce of mutual misunderstanding. The narrative switches between Gerald’s voice and Marta’s at regular intervals, and their continual misinterpretation of each other’s actions provides some rather comic moments. Marta firmly believes that Gerald is a gay, alcoholic prone to wild fantasies and delusions of talent; Gerald is convinced that Marta is an uncultured Euro-slut out to seduce him. Hamilton-Paterson throws these two through a plot that includes organised crime, chart-topping boy bands, revered Italian filmmakers and large quantities of Fernet Branca.
Humour is a highly subjective thing but many passages of Cooking With Fernet Branca didn’t seem as funny as they were perhaps intended to be. Much of the satirical material, the Boyzone-esque boy band Freewayz fronted by a highly camouflaged thirty-year-old with alopecia, Marta’s homeland Voynovia with its principle diet of fat-flecked sausage and stodgy dumplings, seemed heavy-handed and obvious. Hamilton-Paterson also resorts far too frequently to the scatological, and the narrative is littered with as many fart gags as there are references to Fernet Branca. The novel’s lighter comic touches are its most effective, the overlapping versions of events, switching from Gerald to Marta and back again, are initially very amusing, as the character’s flaws and pomposities are revealed in the way the other sees them. It’s a winning technique that, though successful, doesn’t seem quite enough to sustain the story and as the novel progresses it does end up feeling repetitive.
Hamilton-Paterson is a sharp, capable writer and the novel contains some vibrant imagery, inventive plotting and a succession of memorable moments but he undermines himself with an over-reliance on crude jokes and unsubtle stereotypes.