I was given this book at a poetry slam a year or two ago but it’s sat on my shelves for ages – at the bottom, where the hardbacks live and where I never look. When I drew it out, I realised the cover was lovely, so I went for it.
Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment is the story of Tory Pace who, shortly after the start of World War II and the departure of her husband, finds her mother, who is known to everyone (including her late husband) simply as ‘Mrs Head’, living with her.
With her children evacuated to the Cotswolds and husband Donald off as a serving soldier, it’s just weary Tory and bossy Mrs Head in the house, and the relationship at first is fraught. Then then the previously meek Donald is captured by the Germans and begins to write stern requests for filthy letters from his mousy wife – Tory is shocked, as is Mrs Head when Tory shows her Donald’s letters. But the requests slowly seem to unlock something in Tory and they trigger a chain of events that is tragic, funny and completely engaging. I went six extra stops on the tube without realising whilst reading Nourishment. I couldn’t put it down.
Woodward’s writing is so simple and so spare that no word is ever wasted – not one page of this book was dull, it never dragged. So I was a fan of the writing but, more than that, I was a fan of the fact that Woodward is a man who can really write a woman. Even some excellent writers fail in this respect but Tory Pace is flesh-and-blood real – so is Mrs Head, who I became incredibly fond of as the book went on. No one-dimensional bossy, clucky old widow, she too has the secrets, the glorious little quirks that make Tory so compelling. For me, amongst all the other wonderful aspects of this book, the best was this relationship that shrank, grew and changed between mother and daughter. (Not only a man who can write women then, but a man who can write that monumentally nuanced thing: the mother-daughter relationship. Gerard Woodward: I bow to you.)
Above all, Nourishment feels like a real old fashioned story – both absorbing and otherworldly whilst still dealing with all that is breathtakingly mundane. I loved the fact that the book conjured up the world of the English wartime stiff upper lip, the speedy passions conceived under the looming threat of bombs, the gelatine-eating no-nonsense attitude of the old days. Woodward’s writing is unadorned to the point of being plain, and yet it’s always quietly eloquent – the perfect word is always chosen. Isn’t that the hardest and most important job of the writer: to find the perfect words to express the things we all understand when we hear them? Gerard Woodward is magnificent at this. He has written a story that is so perfectly crafted that it is seamless. Nourishment is funny and sad, thoughtful and escapist – I will definitely be seeking out more books by its author.