Book review: An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey

When you are creating what is virtually a new reading genre, there are bound to be a wide variety of influences at play.

Take Martine Bailey’s eclectic and engrossing debut novel An Appetite for Violets, a tasty blend of food, romance, history and dark mystery, which has been aptly described by one critic as ‘culinary gothic.’

Harnessing her cookery skills, a fascination with 18th century household books of recipes, outings with a historical re-enactment society, the experiences of early European Grand Tour travellers like Hugh Walpole and James Boswell, and even her late grandfather’s Lancashire dialect, Bailey spreads before us a feast of cuisine, conspiracy and crime.

But don’t be fooled into thinking this is just another opportunity to cook up a cutesy, love-filled adventure and garnish it with few sweet-smelling, home-grown recipes.

From the muddy turf and faded grandeur of a Cheshire mansion to a sun-soaked villa in Tuscany, this is a haunting and authentic story full of drama, revelations and unexpected plot twists which captures time, place and language with exquisite precision.

At the age of 22, Biddy Leigh has finally decided that marriage to her handsome, if not entirely dependable, sweetheart Jem Burdett is marginally preferable to continuing as the talented under-cook at forbidding Mawton Hall in Cheshire.

Biddy, ‘crafty as a jackdaw,’ is irrepressibly curious and has learned much – sometimes things she shouldn’t know about – from overheard conversations, open writing desks and scattered papers.

But when her elderly master Sir Geoffrey Ridley, a wreck of a man with ‘a scarlet Malmsey nose,’ marries the capricious young Lady Carinna, Biddy’s plans go awry as she is unwittingly swept up into a world of scheming, secrets and lies.

Forced to accompany Carinna to Italy, along with her new mistress’s Indonesian slave-cum-footman Loveday, a wise man who knows that his survival depends on ‘understanding the private thinking of those around him,’ Biddy takes with her a 100-year-old household book of recipes, The Cook’s Jewel, in which she records her observations.

And when she finds herself caught up in a murderous conspiracy, Biddy realises that the secrets she holds could be the key to her survival, or her downfall…

For all its complex plotting and mesmeric weaving of multiple themes, An Appetite for Violets is still a thoroughly enjoyable read as it moves from light to shade, from humour to high drama, and from the prosaic to the thought-provoking.

Even as you revel in Biddy’s mouth-watering hocks of ham, ducklings in truffle sauce, plum fools and violet pastilles, there are moments to contemplate the plight of Loveday, cruelly separated from his family in Indonesia, and the constraints on women in all classes of society.

Part social history, part exploration of 18th century cuisine and part action-packed, dark-edged mystery, this is probably the most delicious – and inventive – story you will read this year.

(Hodder, paperback, £7.99)