Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The icing on the cake

I have just e-mailed the novel to my agent - I cannot even say what a relief it is to be done with this (for now - will revisit for revisions sometime later this spring).

In the meantime, a funny little bit to whet the appetite...

I feel that my fiction does not excerpt well, there is never a self-contained episode that can be extracted (and a blog post is not a good way of posting an extract, either!), but I wrote this partly because my former student Julia (whose novel Willow will be out in the very near future) rightly observed that all of the food in The Explosionist is extremely off-putting and asked whether I couldn't write about something delicious for a change!

I was laughing as I wrote this scene, because in fact it is followed only a few minutes later by someone throwing a canister of gas (complete with biological warfare agent) through the conservatory windows, the building being evacuated and everyone present being put into quarantine - but I was kind enough to let Sophie and Mikael eat something delicious first...

Here is the sequence, anyway (the occasion is alternate-universe Niels Bohr's birthday party at the Carlsberg Mansion in alternate 1938 Copenhagen):
The spectacle inside was grand and glittering and glorious. Sophie found herself amidst a throng of new arrivals in the great vaulted hallway, which was painted cream and rose and gold, with enormous vases of flowers everywhere one turned. A servant was taking everyone’s coats and Marguerite Bohr stood welcoming guests; Bohr himself could be seen through the open doorway at the bottom of the mansion’s central staircase, engaged in a passionate conversation with a gentleman whom Mikael identified for Sophie as the German cultural attaché.

“Spy?” Sophie whispered.

“Spy!” Mikael assented, and Fru Petersen gave them a stern look.

There would be no formal dinner this evening. It was more the sort of party where people stood around drinking champagne in flutes; because of the Carlsberg sponsorship, it was also possible to have a glass of beer, and Sophie and Mikael were served little cut-glass mugs of a delicious citrus punch ladled from a crystal bowl with slices of oranges and lemons floating in it alongside the bergs of ice.

She and Mikael had gravitated to the dining room, which held the most astonishing and delicious array of food that Sophie had ever seen. The boards were almost groaning with hams and whole sides of smoked salmon and the most delicious thin slices of brown bread and mounds of fresh salted butter and platters of cheese—in short, everything that Sophie, who liked food to be plain rather than mixed together, found utterly delicious. She and Mikael gorged themselves; Pauli was there, too, eating plateful after plateful of smoked salmon, and several of the young men from the Institute managed to put away more food than one would have quite thought possible. The ‘spies’ were not doing so badly either, Sophie noticed; a whole group of them had congregated near the food and installed themselves around a small table where they could stand and eat and drink without worrying about a servitor potentially whisking away a momentarily-put-down-but-not-yet-emptied glass.

Sophie’s secret plan, and perhaps Mikael’s as well, had been to glutton herself on the savories quickly enough to digest before the true pinnacle of the evening (of course there would be speeches and toasts, but they would be very dull) on the utterly glorious table of sweets that had been set up in the conservatory.

“Let’s just go and look at them,” Sophie said to Mikael, feeling sick to the stomach from having already rather over-eaten and yet with the yen for something divinely sugary still strong in her mouth.

“Oh, yes, let’s,” Mikael agreed. “Even if we’re not quite ready to eat anything else, there’s no reason we shouldn’t contemplate our choices….”

It seemed excessively greedy (though the main point of grown-up parties, if one was not yet a grown-up, was surely the twin benefit of having delicious things to eat and being allowed to stay up past one’s bedtime) to make a beeline for the dessert table. The conservatory was a feast for the eyes in its own right: an enormous vaulted greenhouse with walls of glass and iron, including a glass wall through which one could see the dining room.

“This must be where that macaw hailed from,” Sophie exclaimed, “the one who let out all Hevesy’s cats!”

“Yes,” said Mikael; “I believe it was exiled from Eden because it wouldn’t stop fighting with the other birds….”

Most of the birds she could see now were lorikeets, their bright plumage matched by the lush green of tropical plants and the brilliant pinks and reds and yellows of the flowers. Every plant had a label, but the mildly improving aura of the scientific-cum-educational was thoroughly mitigated by the lovely profusion of the plants themselves.

Lavish!” Sophie said fervently, touching the leaf of an especially flourishing specimen and feeling her cheeks crinkle up into a huge smile as one of the birds in the enclosed aviary came right up to the screen and looked inquisitively into her face to see whether she might be going to give it something delicious to eat.

The jewel-colored jungle, with its damp earth-smelling air and tropical warmth, was made extraordinarily more striking by the fact that outside it continued to snow heavily enough that even a few feet away from the glass was only a thick blanket of dull whiteness. Just then the headmistress of Sophie’s school hove into view, in intent conversation with Niels Bohr’s sister, so Mikael and Sophie hastily made their way to the darkest corner of the room and took up residence behind a massive rubber plant—it must have been fifteen feet tall—to lie low and digest.

They could hear snippets of this and that—Robert Otto Frisch and Hilde Levi were having a lively argument about the notion of quantum entanglement, Hevesy was rhapsodizing in strongly accented Danish about the Hungarian nursery rhymes of his childhood (his homeland now doubly lost to him, since the Austro-Hungarian Empire of yore had been thoroughly engulfed by Europe), two ‘spies’ chattered in a high-speed Russian of which Sophie could understand just enough to be almost certain they were comparing notes on what laundry did the best job starching shirts for the least amount of money.

“How’s your stomach doing, Sophie?” Mikael asked.

“Surely it couldn’t hurt just to go and look at the sweets,” she said longingly.

They slipped through the dense clusters of partygoers until they were right by the table. There were platters divided into sections with dried apricots and cherries and cashews and candied ginger, and one plate after another of perfect little round chocolate truffles, each in an individual fluted paper cup and with all sorts of different decorations on top. The plainest ones were simply rolled in cocoa, giving them an appealingly Ugly Ducklingesque drabness (but Sophie would not waste her limited remaining stomach capacity on something so plain-looking and densely chocolaty); others were decorated with little caps of white chocolate with a light dusting of cinnamon or with a star-shaped pattern of silver or gold dragées.

There were heaping platters of hothouse fruit: green and purple seedless grapes with the blush still upon them, apricots and peaches and plums, strawberries whose strong scent cut through the competing aromas of chocolate and almond and vanilla and cigars and cognac and women’s perfume and the rich, almost rotting scent of the tropical flowers and earth.

The true glory of the dessert table, though, was the enormous multi-tiered silver cake stand, which was absolutely stuffed full of the most beautiful little cakes and pastries imaginable. They were almost too pretty to eat. There were miniature éclairs, piped full of whipped cream and covered with shiny chocolate icing, with a perfect little squiggle of white icing to adorn them. There were pink macaroons sandwiched together with a light green cream and white ones dusted in coconut. There were tiny fairy cakes iced in the most perfect pale blues and greens and pinks and lavenders like a very beautiful sunset. There were Lilliputian fruit tarts, their delicate custard filling topped with a few raspberries or miniature orange segments or strawberries and glistening with a sugar glaze. There were heart-shaped linzer torte and almond crescents and hazelnut tuiles and black-and-white checkerboard sablés and perfect little rosette butter cookies decorated with glacé cherries.

Sophie agonized over what to have first, but after a long hesitation, she chose a tiny cake iced in robin’s-egg blue and covered with green and yellow sugar confetti. She ate it in two bites, relishing the airy taste of the butter-cream icing and the almost fantastically light sponge base.


  1. Lorikeets!

    Had the Scottish (actual or alternate) not found their cuisine satisfactory, I'm sure they would have invented some other....

  2. Just lovely in the true sense of the word.

  3. Delicious! (Except, to be truly perfect, eclairs should have pastry cream, not whipped cream.)

    One of the most memorable things I ever heard Gillian Beer say was that Middlemarch has no food--which is absolutely true, but who ever noticed? (Which is its own question, and adds to the perfect illustration of Gillian's genius.)

  4. Ah, lovely! Thanks for the excerpt, it was fun!

  5. Thanks for screwing with my diet.

  6. Why don't I ever get invited to parties like that?


  7. Is your book in the Joan Aiken tradition?

  8. Congratulations! (re emailing book).