Joan Clark’s novel The Birthday Lunch (Knopf Canada, July 2015) tells of a birthday lunch that goes wrong. And the lavishly iced cake on the book’s cover, with its luscious cherries, is not a cake eaten at that lunch. Rather the image hovering over this novel is the haunting domestic scene in Peter de Hooch’s “Woman with a Child in a Pantry” c.1656-60; one that’s all about perspective on the domestic scene. After all, one understands family only through one’s own particular lens.
There are multiple “turning point” meals in this novel. Not to give too much of the carefully crafted plot away, let me just say that the McNab family, around which the novel centres, understands the language of food. In their very different ways, they can all speak and hear the stories food tells. For example, they appreciate the gestures of a neighbour who delivers supper baskets filled with comfort foods (fresh bread, roast chicken or salmon loaf), or of another who brings a breakfast of cheese blintzes and vla, a kind of vanilla custard. When gathered in the same house they make one another delicious breakfasts — coffee, pancakes, or frittatas. Clark describes the meals in details for her readers so we, too, learn to decipher the meaning of a meal. When we hear the story that eleven-year old George (who is not a McNab) was the last pauper auctioned in New Brunswick, we celebrate with him as he tucks in to his first meal in his new home, Addie’s delicious chicken stew and imagines a future with “no more pig slop.”
However the heart-warming turning point meal of this novel provides for Canadian readers a contemporary version of Virginia Woolf’s “boeuf en daube” dinner scene in To the Lighthouse. The McNabs gather at one point together with their estranged family members and with all the inevitable regrets and recriminations that are the baggage of human lives, over a family dinner. For this particular meal the menu is roast pork, but as with any good meal “the stories keep coming” (244), bringing with it apologies given and accepted, and invitations to yet more meals to be shared. This meal turns the tide of the novel, from despair and grief to the potential of human forgiveness and connection.
Written by Nathalie Cooke