Success and secrets: Will Storr and Beatrice Hitchman

Will Storr, The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone (2013)
Beatrice Hitchman, Petite Mort (2013)

Killian Lone used to be one of the world’s greatest chefs (he tells us this from beyond the grave, so you can guess how well that turned out). His fascination with food began as a child, learning recipes from his Great-aunt Dorothy, one of whose ancestors was burnt at the stake for (it is said) producing food that drove people mad. Killian went on to study catering at college, and displayed such a rare talent that his teacher was able to land him a six-week placement at King, the restaurant of his idol, celebrity chef Max Mann – something unheard of for a lad of Killian’s background.

Max Mann had a reputation as the ‘Gentleman Chef’, who never let an apprentice go; Killian soon discovered why – Mann could wield silence where others might resort to threats. Just about the only bright spot amid the seemingly relentless hazing was Killian’s fellow-apprentice Kathryn, who would eventually become his wife. And Killian would go on to greater success as head chef of a rival kitchen, once he’d uncovered the true secret of his family’s cooking – but, like I said, you know how well it turned out…

Perhaps the scenes that most stand out most in Will Storr’s first novel are those depicting the ritual humiliation of Killian in the kitchens of King (such as the time Mann and his underling give Killian conflicting instructions over quality control, then alternately berate him for doing the ‘wrong’ thing). These scenes are excruciatingly vivid; Storr says in his closing note that they’re based on factual accounts, which only makes them seem more extraordinary. The author paints other emotions in similarly broad strokes, which can sometimes feel overly unsubtle (from the way Killian builds up his rosy preconception of Max Mann, it’s all too obvious that the chef will turn out to be a bastard), but is nevertheless always engaging.

But what really makes The Hunger and the Howling of Killian Lone shine for me is the way that Storr parses Killian’s ambition through his use of the Lone family secret. We’re so focused on the helping hand Killian gets that it takes a while to realise that he’s become like Max Mann. It’s a very effective way of showing someone being corrupted, unawares, when power goes to his head, because it puts the reader in the same position as Killian.

***

The protagonist of Petite Mort, Beatrice Hitchman’s debut, dreams of making it in another world whose outward glamour may mask a darker reality: the world of early cinema. Adèle Roux’s life changes in 1911, when she first sees a moving picture, and is caught by the allure of its female lead, known as Terpsichore – more than that, she wants to be her. Two years later, Adèle journeys from her provincial village to Paris, determined to become an actress; she does end up working for Pathé, but as a seamstress.

Yet, as we learn from a parallel plot-line, Adèle did indeed become a star, of sorts. In 1967, a journalist named Juliette Blanc seeks to interview her about her 1914 film Petite Mort, never seen and thought destroyed, until a print turned up with a scene missing. Back in the 1910s, we read, a special effects pioneer named André Durand plucked Adèle from her costuming work, gave her a job – and embarked on an affair with her. Adèle became the assistant of Durand’s wife:  none other than Terpsichore – and a ménage à trois soon develops.

Petite Mort is a novel of masks and secrets, whose protagonists have all been able to reinvent themselves: Adèle the village girl; André the boy from a Louisiana orphanage; Terpsichore the girl of noble birth, sent away at the age of six after being involved in a riding accident – each, to an extent, can leave their past behind in the film world. The theme of secrets carries through to the plot, which revolves around the mysterious print of Petite Mort. Hitchman juggles a good number of individual plot strands; but, whatever she’s writing about at any given point, the pages always demand to be turned.

Despite the hooks of the plot, though, the true heart of Petite Mort is perhaps the relationship between its three main characters As in Storr’s novel, we have a portrait of ambition and power, but this time mediated primarily through the changing balance of its characters’ relations. It’s a technique that leaves you wondering just how this will all end. Both of these books also leave me wondering where their authors will go next – and keen to find out.

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