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Stuffed with character

The Embalmer's Book of Recipes by Ann Lingard

Kat Arney 11 January 2009

Perceptive: detail from the cover art

Lingard’s background in zoology and teaching shines through the book like a lantern, illuminating and educating, without being overly didactic

I’m waiting in a pub for a friend to turn up, and passing the time by reading The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes by Ann Lingard. Intrigued by the enormous eyeball pictured on the front cover, the bartender asks me what it’s about.

“Errr, a dwarf professor of maths, a disfigured sheep farmer and a sex-mad taxidermist,” I reply.

“Jeez!” he says, rolling his eyes, “Do you need another drink?”

But to describe Lingard’s intricate novel in this way is to do it a huge disservice. After a slightly slow start, I found myself drawn in by the delicate prose and fascinating descriptions of the world of art and the science of animal stuffing. And although the plot isn’t exactly action-packed, high-octane drama, it’s an engrossing and enjoyable read.

Lingard now lives and farms sheep in Cumbria, where the book is set. While I don’t know whether her own farm was affected, the horrific legacy of foot-and-mouth disease looms large throughout the novel. We get glimpses of burning pyres of sheep and cattle, yet most of the horror is unspoken, adding a menacing undercurrent.

Against this backdrop – and a fond portrayal of the Cumbrian countryside – the book centres on three strong, yet flawed, female characters. Maddie, a widowed sheep-farmer, is a soothing, maternal presence throughout the story, acting as a kind of surrogate mother and confidante to the other two. And what a pair they are! Ruth – flame haired and over-sexed – is a taxidermist who rents a workshop on Maddie’s farm. In stark contrast, Lisa is an achondroplasic dwarf mathematician with a surprisingly active love-life.

Over the course of the novel, the women fall in love, fall out of love, fall pregnant, and fall victim to prejudice. That may sound like a recipe for chick-lit, but Lingard’s cast of characters takes it out of the ordinary. After a bit of scene-setting preamble, the action starts when Ruth’s ex-lover Stefan – a physicist – turns up on her doorstep with Lisa in tow. The book documents the twists and turns in the friendships between the three women, largely dictated by their relationships with men.

And this is the area that makes the reader question their own prejudices, as Lisa has satisfying physical relationships with not one but two men. Dwarves suffer from a relatively low profile (no pun intended) in popular culture. They exist as circus freaks, or figures of fun – just think of Austin Powers’ Mini Me – but certainly not as sexual beings. Lisa’s anxieties and insecurities over her relationships with “regular sized” men are sensitively portrayed. Particularly touching is the troubled interaction between Lisa and her sister, who clearly cannot conceive that an achondroplasic could possibly have snared a good-looking chap.

And there is more grist for the intellectual mill. As a child I spent many happy hours in Tring Zoological Museum, poring over stuffed and preserved specimens from elephants to fleas. This fascination with the macabre art of taxidermy is personified in the character of Ruth, from the detailed descriptions of her workshop to the careful explanations of her labours.

Lingard’s background in zoology and teaching shines through the book like a lantern, illuminating and educating, without being overly didactic. She cleverly uses the device of Ruth’s blog as a means to slip in detailed extended discussions of taxidermological dioramas, baroque anatomy, dwarves and giants. I finished the novel feeling I had really learned something, and with the strong desire to find out more about the art and science depicted in it. This might be off-putting for some, but as a perpetual learner I found it satisfying.

Another bit of overt science comes from the vaguely comical sci-art sub-plot – familiar to anyone who has been involved in such projects. Lingard’s portrayal of a rather pretentious DNA-inspired electronica performance raises a wry smile, as does the scene set on a beach, waiting for a giant mechanical octopus to crank into life. As a rule, Lingard weaves science into her writing smoothly and naturally. Perhaps the only time it feels like the lab-coat has been shoe-horned into the plot is in the fleeting appearances of a visiting parasitologist. And the discussion of eugenics – as Lisa debates aloud why she will not have children – comes across as a touch heavy-handed.

Perhaps my main criticism of the book is that the female characters are so strongly and clearly drawn, there is barely anything left for the men. They are briefly sketched and one-dimensional, while the women are complex and emotionally charged – I found myself overwhelmed by oestrogen in places. Given that the lives of the three are thrown together and churned up by men, there’s little light to be shed on the male side of the story.

Overall though, this is a charming, intelligent and engrossing book, with enough dark heart to drag it away from the domain of standard female fiction fare and into much more engaging territory.

Related information

The Embalmer’s Book of Recipes (Pen Press) is out on 20 January 2009 and can be ordered from Amazon.