Hunters & Collectors | M. Suddain | 2016 | Jonathan Cape | 512p | Review copy | Buy the book
Feared by chefs and restaurant owners across the universe, John Tamberlaine is no ordinary food critic, preferring instead the title of ‘forensic gastronomer’. With the power to rip a career to shreds with a single misquote, Tamberlaine is known to one and all as the Tomahawk, his real identity veiled by intrigue and whispers. Tamberlaine is on a quest to visit and write about the most exquisite restaurants in all the planets, scribbling down his thoughts for his editor, his friends, his fans and his trolls. Especially his trolls. There’s one in particular that Tamberlaine’s rather taken by and he feels the urge to pour out his heart. This might be because he seems to have the knack of saying just the wrong thing to his friends.
Tamberlaine travels in style, astounding us with his itemised luggage, his cornucopia of medicines, his cotton shirts, everything perfectly suited to the luxurious stops on his grand gourmet tour. After several years of this, one place eludes him, a restaurant so exalted and exclusive that nobody is allowed to write about it – the Undersea Restaurant of the Hotel Grand Skies. Getting an invitation to a place that might not exist is no easy task, especially when you need to be unconscious to receive it. But were the Tomahawk to receive such an invitation, his visit – in the company of Gladys his bodyguard and his lawyer the Beast – might not be as he would expect. In fact, it might be the very last thing he would wish for.
How to describe Hunters & Collectors…. It’s an impossible job because this is a book that defies explanation. What it demands instead is that you read it with your powers of imagination wide, wide open, receptive and hungry. They will be fed by something marvellous, as clever as it is hilarious, as macabre and horrifying as it is elegant, as weird as it is odd. I was expecting to find it a challenge. Surreal and I rarely get along but Hunters & Collectors has something of the spirit of Douglas Adams about it, mixed with Sixties and Seventies horror and science fiction. It reminded me of so many things that I love. The problem is I can’t tell you what as that would spoil things. And you do not want this to be spoiled. There are shocks in store, there is verbal sparring on a tremendous level, there is an awful lot of blood, a pleasing display of politeness and decorum, and the senses will be overwhelmed by what it receives.
There is so much going on here. This is a futuristic world that encompasses other planets which could almost be set in the present day only on our home planet – except that it offers glimpses that it isn’t. You have to look out for them. There is beauty in this universe, exemplified here by good shoes and a good meal, but there is great evil. The presence of The Butcher, the greatest dictator, looms over proceedings like the worst case of food poisoning. And the Tomahawk, surely one of the most delightful and refined of narrators, endures and enjoys all kinds of experiences and the way in which he deals with them reveals a great deal about his character and his world.
At times the novel reads like a guidebook, while at others it’s a memoir, scribbled down in his notebooks (with horses on them). We’re taken on all kinds of transportation, most memorably a train, we see all kinds of places. Nothing and nobody, though, are quite what they seem. Sometimes you might find that out, at other times you might not.
Suddain writes beautifully and with such wit and grace. Here is prose and dialogue to feast on. This is a very funny book, without labouring the humour. I wasn’t expecting to be scared but there were times when I was very scared. But the frightening bits are often the funniest. It is very clever. Hunters & Collectors is hugely imaginative and brilliantly accessible while also being hilarious and terrifying. Science fiction, horror, guidebook, memoir – this wonderful, wonderful novel fulfils many roles and without doubt is one of my top three reads of the year so far. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a masterpiece.
I haven’t read Theatre of the Gods yet. That’s something I shall fix.