The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

vibrant | elegant | delicious

what it says on the cover …

England 1835. Eliza Acton is a poet who dreams of seeing her words in print. But when she takes her new manuscript to a publisher, she’s told that ‘poetry is not the business of a lady’. Instead, they want her to write a cookery book. That’s what readers really want from women. England is awash with exciting new ingredients, from spices to exotic fruits. But no one knows how to use them

Eliza leaves the offices appalled. But when her father is forced to flee the country for bankruptcy, she has no choice but to consider the proposal. Never having cooked before, she is determined to learn and to discover, if she can, the poetry in recipe writing. To assist her, she hires seventeen-year-old Ann Kirby, the impoverished daughter of a war-crippled father and a mother with dementia. 

Over the course of ten years, Eliza and Ann developed an unusual friendship – one that crossed social classes and divides – and, together, they broke the mould of traditional cookbooks and changed the course of cookery writing forever.

PUBLISHED: 3rd February 2022
SHELF: Historical Fiction
AUTHOR: Annabel Abbs
PUBLISHER: Simon & Schuster
FORMATS: Hardback | Kindle | AudioBook

Thank you to @BookMinxSJV  for sending me an advance proof copy of #TheLanguageOfFood @annabelabbs (published by @simonschusterUK)

my review

This is such a simple world, but pleasure is the word that popped into my head within the very first few chapters of The Language of Food. It’s an enticing blend of beautiful storytelling, lyrical phrasing, captivating characters, and deliciously mouth-watering descriptions.  My husband has told me many (many many!) times that when I’m eating food I’m clearly enjoying, my feet wiggle, and he rather revelled in pointing out he’d noticed my feet wiggling whilst I was reading this wonderful book.

The Language of Food is a feast for the senses and the soul.  For me, it had the same all-consuming enjoyment of Joanne Harris’s Chocolat novels – vivid scene setting, a story that combines a welcome warmth with an underlying tension, abundantly colourful characters, and … happy sigh … food! From the very opening chapters, the sense of time and place is rich and immersive, brought to life with remarkable clarity through both the vernacular and narrative. And although I have rather harped on about the foodie content of this novel, the true stand-out element for me is the life-story of its lead character, Eliza Acton, who proves to be both an era-defining and an era-defying tour de force.

As is often my way with historical fiction, I like to flick to the end of the book first, not for a sneak-peek at the final chapter, but to see if the author has included notes about her research and how that that shaped the writing of the novel.  Annabel Abbs has generously fed my appetite for these facts; historical notes introduced me to each of the true life characters who appear in her novel, including a longer extract about the life of Eliza herself; a list of recommended reading titles piqued my interest, particularly the books on other female cook book writers of the time, as well as a couple of books about the era’s horrific ‘lunatic’ asylum system; poetry informs and shapes the entirety of this novel and so the reference list naturally complements this section; and last but by no means least are a handful of recipes copied directly from Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery book – I can’t see myself attempting the broiled eels or whole pig’s head any time soon, but they made fascinating reading nonetheless.

There are books I’m very happy to enjoy from the removed position as a reader, being outside the story looking in. And there are books I just want to step inside … The Language of Food is absolutely the latter. I long to hug Ann and assure her everything will be alright, and give her the confidence to believe in herself. And I’m itching to congratulate Eliza on her strength and achievements. They’re both so incredibly personable, and although they have such vastly different lineage they share so many common experiences – the stultifying lack of choice; the shackles of their respective stations; the imposition of shame borne of ignorance and society’s prejudices; a loneliness and determination.

The chemistry between Ann and Eliza has been written beautifully. Whilst each woman comes to life in her own right, they also bring out the nuances and traits in each other … like ingredients complementing each other. Eliza’s joy at her discovery of cooking, and recipes and ingredients is intoxicating, spilling over into a generosity of spirit that gives Ann a helping hand up from her heartbreaking poverty.  For all Eliza’s fundamental likeableness, there are occasions when her snobbery and ignorance towards Ann’s home situation frustrated me, but these fleeting moments were outweighed by the enjoyment of watching the two women flourish, following them as they strived to better themselves and, in doing so, gain an unfashionable degree of independence.

The prologue and epilogue are both set twenty-four years after the main story, with Ann as their sole narrator.  I was happy to find her in a secure position, happy and confident, and about to embark on a bold culinary and familial adventure entirely of her own making. Whilst her story sheds light on the ultimate fate of the book’s other key characters, I did find myself feeling a little bit robbed of the intervening years and how those events came to be. Admittedly, this could have turned a perfectly planned novel into something rather longer, but the author has taken care to shed a light on some of these missing pieces through the historical notes that I mentioned earlier.

The Language of Food is a pure joy of a book, that wholly lives up to effusive praise in the plentiful early reviews – yes, I can entirely see why the marketing and PR teams at the publishers are so incredibly excited about its February launch. For anyone who loves reading richly fact-based historical fiction … or enjoys a damn good story, pure and simple … or someone craving a warm hearty book-hug … or someone who luuurves their food and cooking … then this is an unmissable must-read that demands a place in your reading list.  The cover design alone is a thing of beauty, and if you follow the purchase links below, you’ll be able to pre-order the most stunning copy for yourself 😍

Oh, and P.S: this book absolutely begs a film or drama series.  Anyone with Netflix or Pinewood Studios connections pretty please have your people call the publisher’s people!

The Language of Food will be published in paperback on 3rd February 2022. But if you can’t wait, you can pre-order your copy right away from @ColesBooks and @blackwellbooks

author bio

Annabel Abbs is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. She grew up in Wales and Sussex, with stints in Dorset, Bristol and Hereford. Daughter of academic and poet, Peter Abbs, she has a degree in English Literature from the University of East Anglia and a Masters from the University of Kingston. She lives with her family in London and Sussex, and is a Fellow of the Brown Foundation.

Annabel’s debut novel, The Joyce Girl, has won several awards including being selected for presentation at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. Published across the world, Annabel discussed The Joyce Girl on BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music. It is currently being adapted for the stage.

Her second novel, Frieda: The Originial Lady Chatterley, was a Times Book of the Month, then a Times Book of the Year 2018 and one of five novels selected for presentation to film directors at the 2017 Frankfurt Book Fair. 

Annabel’s first non-fiction book, The Age-Well Project, was published by Little, Brown in 2019, co-written with TV producer, Susan Saunders, and based on their acclaimed blog, longlisted for the 2018 UK Blog Awards.

Annabel’s short stories and journalism have appeared in various places including The Guardian, The Paris Review, Tatler, The Irish Times, Weekend Australian Review, Elle, Sydney Morning Post, The Author, The Daily Telegraph, Psychologies Magazine, Philosophy Now, Mslexia and the Huffington Post. She has been profiled in Writing Magazine, Sussex Life, Next NZ, Litro and Female First and speaks regularly at literary festivals. She sponsors a scholarship/bursary for a mature student on the UEA Creative Writing MA. 

6 thoughts on “The Language of Food by Annabel Abbs

  1. Food and feminism combined?!? Sign me up!This is a wonderful review and I’m so pleased you shared your thoughts on the novel as I hadn’t heard of it before 📚❤️ X x x

    Liked by 1 person

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