Seven Sorts of Hunger
Family secrets and keeping up appearances, delivered with that utterly original Dorrestein irony
In Seven Sorts of Hunger everything revolves around eating. Or in fact around not eating, since Renate Dorrestein’s latest novel is set in a luxury slimming retreat, the William Banting Institute, where overweight rich men – CEOs, film producers, property developers – come to rid themselves of their excess kilos. Nadine and Derek Ravendorp, owners of the institute, prefer to call it a ‘change of lifestyle’.
It’s a recipe tried and tested over twenty-five years, but recently there has been a ‘contraction in bookings’. In the week covered by the novel, serious cracks threaten to appear in the institute’s painstakingly built reputation.
A stupid mistake and its cover-up sets the story in motion. Nadine is caught driving under the influence. Charges are brought. She doesn’t dare tell anyone and as a result becomes so mixed up that on top of it all, having just seen Derek off on a plane to Iceland, she knocks down a tramp as she’s driving away. Terrified of another confrontation with the police, she takes him back with her to the Institute.
There she does her best to make sure the tramp, now dubbed ‘my cousin Helmut’, stays away from the wealthy fatties who are there for the cure. But Helmut violates all the conventions of the retreat. Nadine seems to parry difficult questions from staff and guests with aplomb, but inside she’s sinking ever further into the morass of keeping up appearances. In an attempt to turn the financial tide, she allows a corpulent television producer to bring his anorexic teenage daughter to the institute with him. The childless Nadine unexpectedly develops a special relationship with the girl.
Seven Sorts of Hunger is a novel of tremendous pace. Scenes full of lively dialogue come thick and fast, and Dorrestein, master of the cliff-hanger, gives the story several unexpected twists. The superficially rather awkward Derek, for instance, turns out on his return from Iceland to have a secret beside which driving under the influence pales into insignificance. Husband and wife steer straight towards the abyss. But then help arrives from an unexpected quarter.
Nothing is what it seems in this novel, where fashionable subjects like health obsession and being overweight – ‘fat is the new poor’ – are intertwined in an utterly original way with timeless themes such as family secrets, maintaining control, and parent-child relationships. Partly thanks to Dorrestein’s ever-present subtle irony, these weighty subjects are kept agreeably light.