Breaking Bread With the Dead

Laura Freeman, The Reading Cure: How Books Restored My Appetite

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781474604659

reviewed by Stephanie Sy-Quia

There is a variety of ways in which I, a woman, could begin a review of a book about another woman relaying her experience of living with anorexia. I could steep my response in the personal, discussing my own relationship with food; or relaying the experience of watching a schoolmate slowly starving herself over the course of our teens (not quite to death, but to infertility, which is after all, wouldn’t you agree, the same thing). I could dangle details of her condition before you: how her hair thinned and dimmed, how her rings shuttled back and forth on her knuckles, how her teeth went grey and translucent from the bile and the Diet Coke. But to do so would be to give in to our morbid fascination with the emaciated, or as we often say, wasted, bodies of teenage girls.

Or, I could start this review with statistics, for a cooler, more impartial beginning: that of the 1.25 million people living with a diagnosed easting disorder in Britain today, a mere 11% are male. That young women in their mid-teens are most at risk of developing anorexia. Luckily, Laura Freeman doesn’t make large concessions to either urge in the early phases of her book, which centres on the epicurean encouragement provided by literature in the years after the worst of her illness. Instead, it is ‘a book about what comes next’ after the desperate days of bed rest: a wandering journey through books and authors that have helped her to embrace a fuller, less lonely life: travels with Patrick Leigh Fermour, ‘ginger biscuits broken in half with Virginia Woolf.’

Freeman’s bread-breaking begins with early victories over her inner demons, which she compares throughout to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock: eggs and buttered toast, emboldened by Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. She moves on to travel writers of the 1930s and 40s: Richard Hughes, Fermour, Laurie Lee, ‘lopers and munchers’ with ‘invincible’ hungers for food and experiences. There is a Dickens marathon which occasions a brave bite of Christmas pudding and Hardy’s lengthy descriptions of dairy life in Tess get her drinking milk in her tea.

Dangerously close to the hundred-page mark, when I was just about to give up on this gaggle of ‘public schoolboys and cricketers’, comes the concession that, ‘Without really meaning to’, Freeman has presented us solely with men, in possession of ‘uncomplicated, unashamed appetites.’ With a sigh of relief, I prepared myself for an engagement with the complications of female appetites, the all-too-often gendered nature of anorexia, only to have it elude me. When Freeman does move on to women, it is first to Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher: women who loved to eat and loved to cook. Fisher has her making – and eating – new potatoes. From David she learns to make an omelette. Both teach her about female relish as separate from greed. When she returns to both women in her epilogue, it is to hash out this crucial nuance. She alludes to men at parties who, upon hearing of her project, advise she read Rabelais and Trimalchio for their tales of dining excess. She does so, and is left cold: neither Fisher nor David are ‘obscene’, she writes. 'There is always a sense of respect for food: the effort that goes into planning and shopping, washing and dicing, sweating an onion.’

There is an opportunity here to dwell on the domestic labour of cooking itself, a labour all too often carried out by women for men, but it is an opportunity glimpsed through the trees. Repeatedly, Freeman brings us to the brink of an intelligent, lyrical exploration of the gendering of her condition – of which she is more than capable – only to turn back. We come tantalisingly close: ‘After my own teenage years in a girls’ school where hunger and self-loathing were as expected as a dozen A-stars, I warmed to this energetically omnivorous adolescent boy.’ A reckoning with such expectations feels glaringly lacking. Or, in the final pages, a question which would be so much more interesting if she had attempted to answer it: ‘Why is a man’s appetite valiant and a woman’s a shock and scandal?’

For this reason, the book feels at times like a series of missed opportunities. In the chapter dedicated to children’s literature, there is a link yearning to be made between statements such as ‘My pre-teenage relationship with food wasn’t good or bad, it was simply unthinking’ and the ‘untroubled’ hunger of the young men in the opening pages. She whets our appetites for a meditation on the prelapsarian qualities of male hunger, the socialising of female hunger as abhorrent, then leaves us dangling.

The best passage of The Reading Cure concerns Virginia Woolf. Beginning with the diaries, Freeman works her way through all of her writing, and finds a soothing articulation of anguish. ‘It was companionable to walk with her in London,’ Freeman writes, taking to heart Woolf’s lessons about the power of tea and biscuits to keep mental torment at bay. This chapter also occasions Freeman’s frankest writing about the battles raging in her own mind, some of the most raw writing I have ever come across about an eating disorder. It is all the more poignant in light of what we all know about Virginia Woolf’s end. Freeman’s response to it is the book’s greatest achievement: while Woolf has been Freeman’s greatest consolation – ‘no other writer has so helped me make sense of my own mind’ – she is a writer who ‘frightens’ her:

‘I have played a game of sorts, of keeping Woolf alive. I have told myself: there is still Night and Day to read and she is alive. Still The Years and she is alive. [. . .] I have read all the novels now and I have had to reconcile myself to the knowledge that she did not live, that in the end she did not get better.’

Woolf redoubles Freeman’s will to live, and in her honour, she sets about making a life for herself in London: ‘These were Woolf’s gifts to me: to walk and be warm, to have something in my stomach as I sketched and turned the A-Z upside-down.’

Some of her passages are rich and reduced as the juices of a Sunday lunch, and one gets the sense that she rolled the words around the mouth as such. Take this, on roast grouse: ‘But it was such a small thing, so fine-boned, with pin-cushion breast and sewing scissor legs, that it seemed very rum to have shot it for barely a morsel-mouthful of meat.’ It is a slow savouring of language and literature, one self-conscious in its pleasures, which Freeman slowly, cautiously, with the help of a ‘banana-split glory of books’, finds herself applying to her plate. What she offers, ultimately, is a model for recovery which is about sharing, curiosity for new experiences, and simple delight: ‘mushrooms on toast, reading, writing and walking’ – all of which will make one stronger for intermittent snicker-snack battles with self-made monsters.