Not a book recommended for vegetarians
This is not a book you would recommend to a vegetarian. The cover should give that away, a duck standing on a sheep, on a pig, on a cow, with the cuts of each beast satirically annotated.
Wayne Macauley’s third novel, The Cook is the story of Zac, a teenage boy from a shitkicking suburb who for reasons not entirely clear has, along with a motley crew of other boys (‘Drunks, potheads, thieves. Dickheads.’) made it to Chef School set on a farm and run by the elusive “Head Chef”. Zac is determined to emulate Head Chef’s path to culinary fame and riches, power through service. Under the tutelage of sous chef Fabian the boy’s are introduced to the world of haute cuisine, including where all the best ingredients come from, and all the gory details that involves. Even as those around him give up, Zac refuses to falter from his quest for perfection, fantasising about ever more decadent dishes and opening a restaurant of his own.
Then Zac becomes the House Cook for a wealthy, yet not entirely welcoming family. He’s impressed by all the trappings of the executive luxe lifestyle and certain he’s on his way. Zac believes his talent is sure to be recognised and rewarded; despite the insights he gains into how the world of the rich really works. Even as the façade crumbles Zac cannot give up on his dreams.
Wayne Macauley has worked in theatre as a writer, director and dramaturg, published short stories in Meanjin, Overland, Westerly, Island and Griffith Review and his short story collection, Other Stories was shortlisted in this year’s Queensland Premier’s Awards. Blueprints for a Barbed-Wire Canoe, his first novel was published in 2004 and was followed by Caravan Story in 2007. For The Cook he has made the switch to Text Publishing and it has been edited by Michael Heywood, with project support from Arts Victoria. So there's reason to have high expectations.
Macauley is certainly turning up the heat on the pretentiousness and decadence of society’s obsession with food theatre and causing pause about the morality of the processes that serve it up to us. Macauley cuts into his characters with a razor sharp intensity and shows real insight in this depiction of ‘how the other half lives’ and how others perceive that. It’s certain to be a favourite with bookclubs, generating a great deal of discussion and dissenting views, particularly on whether Zac is a character to be sympathised with not. But the claims of ‘dark, hilarious and scary’ seem overstated.
Macauley has opted for a challenging, seemingly naïve and untrustworthy first person voice that doesn’t always work and isn’t always consistent. Despite that, we can see both through Zac’s eyes and interpret characters and events through our own, which provides the most powerful aspect of the writing and is crucial to driving the novel’s tension.
This is bleak and uncomfortable reading that ironically would have been far better if it hadn’t shied away from being even more so. There’s a whiff of Camus’s The Stranger to The Cook but it doesn’t have the same nihilist backbone or power. Though there are images that will play in the imagination for a long time after you put it down, it’s ultimately less than satisfying.
Rating: 3 stars
By Wayne Macauley
Paperback & ebook
RRP: AU $29.95