A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G Summers

There is a school of writing deriving from post-war USA, known as ‘confessional writing’, a whole sub-set of ‘autofiction’. There are also acres of true crime confessions of serial killers. I only mention this because I was trying to find some other examples of fictional confessions of murderers in prison – but couldn’t get past all of the above.

Then I remembered I had read a novel where a murderer confesses all some years ago. That was The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato, the debut novella by one of Argentina’s giants of literature. You can read my full review here, but at the time I was attracted to the story of a murderer telling how he met and killed his victim. The murderer is an artist, convicted for the murder of a woman he rather coerces into an affair with him. He decides to tell the story of exactly what happened between them – not to offer explanations, but to be understood – and get his monstrous ego stroked of course. The novella, a mere 140 pages, though powerful and with a certain grip, was too much of a good, bad thing to really enjoy.

That said, I couldn’t resist saying yes to a review copy of A Certain Hunger, especially as the protagonist was a woman serial killer who ate bits of her victims too! We meet Dorothy Daniels, food critic, in the bar of the Savoy drinking a ‘Corpse Reviver No 2‘ cocktail, when she will fall for the pick-up lines of a young man called Casimir, which will lead to her downfall. They have a fling, and then she kills him.

If you followed the trial, and I assume if you’re reading this that you paid attention to my trial, then you already know how and where I killed Casimir–or you think you know. You saw Nancy grace call me bloodthirsty; you read how Vulture hung on my trial, rated my outfits, made GIFs of my face, and thrilled at the testimony of Emma Absinthe; you saw my episode of Snapped; you read the tweets and you liked them, stabbing that tiny red heart with your forefinger in a hot dopamine rush. What the tabloids named me: the “MILF Killer,” the “Butcher Food Critic,” the “Bloody Nympho.” None got it right. […] You may think you know, but believe me, you don’t.

And over the next 300 pages or so, we get Dorothy’s version of the truth, of how she loved Giovanni, Andrew, Gil and especially Marco, until her lust for Casimir led her to cut corners. Being a food writer and critic of renown, Dorothy has developed a taste for the finer things in life, of food and drink naturally, but also in the bedroom. Her conquests match her appetite there, and consequently there is an earthy, lusty side to this novel, which Dorothy describes in vivid detail!

She only has one woman ‘friend’ – Emma Absinthe.

I knew Emma before anyone knew Emma. I knew Emma before Emma knew Emma. I even knew Emma before Emma was Emma, for when I first met Emma, she was merely Joanne Correa, a shy, milk-skinned, frizzy-haired girl who wore an endless progression of Gunne Sax by Jessica McClintock, dress after dress with pastel tiny-flower prints, a parade of dainty spaghetti straps, a procession of leg-of-mutton sleeves.

I hated Joanne from the first moment I saw her. We were freshmen at Pennistone College, the small, elite liberal arts school in Vermont […]. The luck of residential draw slammed Joanne and me together–fortunately, we shared a very big room, for our dislike was instantaneous, passionate, and mutual.

After hating each other through college, their paths cross again some years later in Boston, where Dorothy is a food journalist, and finds Joanne – now going by the name Tender DeBris as a punk protesting against a building project. Dorothy pays her bail, and that’s where the tentative friendship starts. Later Joanne morphs again into radical artist Emma Absinthe, a darling of the scene. She’s come a long way since Joanne, but is suffering from agoraphobia so doesn’t go out. Emma is as close to a confidant as Dorothy will ever get – or is she playing Dorothy for revenge after college now she is imprisoned in her posh apartment?

The ongoing Emma story running alongside Dorothy’s serial murders of her lovers makes an interesting contrast. However, we must always remember this is a one-sided narration, and Dorothy is far from being a reliable narrator. Dorothy’s style, as you might surmise, is heavy on sensual foodie descriptions – everything can be described in food-related terms, especially meaty ones! She also makes us very aware of her reduced circumstances in prison, and how she’s dealing with it.

There is a lot of black humour in this novel, and I was also reminded of Maeve, the vicious murderer in Will Carver’s recent novel Psychopaths Anonymous. However, I don’t think we were brought onto Dorothy’s side in the same way as Carver does with Maeve (yes!), but in Dorothy’s case, she’s primarily seeking to be remembered for posterity. Dorothy was so enjoying wallowing in her confessions that she is always in danger of over-egging it; and for me, the book sometimes did go that way briefly. It could have been a little tauter in parts. Yet I did enjoy it a lot. This is a fascinating debut novel, with a mad, bad and dangerous-to-know woman protagonist who so thoroughly gets the most out of life!

Source: Review copy – thank you! Faber Paperback original, 321 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

7 thoughts on “A Certain Hunger by Chelsea G Summers

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      In my mind, I kept seeing Dorothy as Tootsie – mixing up the surnames. She is Dorothy Daniels, Dustin Hoffman was Dorothy Michaels!

  1. Calmgrove says:

    In anyone else I would identify a focus on confessions by serial killers as an unhealthy obsession but I really can’t imagine sweet innocent Annabel in that role as a fan of assassin and cannibal autobiographies, can I now! But should I be worried?!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Strange isn’t it! I’m not a big reader of horror (unless there are vampires or zombies involved), but I do enjoy a bit of clever blood and gore in a novel. Mwah-ha-ha!

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