His belly distended, his teeth ground to stumps, his eyes wild: this, we are told, is a man who ate cats; corks; rats; belts; 30 pounds of beef lung and liver; a golden fork; 75 eggs. This is a man who ate a child. Or did he?
A.K. Blakemore’s second novel, The Glutton, tells the true story of Tarare, a peasant from 18th-century France who consumed an appalling catalogue of the edible and inedible as his country consumed itself in revolution. Or, as Blakemore writes: “He was a sight of rare, arresting hideousness, even in those times when severed heads were carried dripping through the streets.”
Blakemore, a Londoner who had a poem published in this newspaper in 2006 when she was 15, encountered Tarare’s story in “one of those late-night Wikipedia holes you get into” and says she “honestly wasn’t sure anyone would’ve wanted to publish a book with so much shit and guts and spit in it if I hadn’t had some proven success before”. That success includes not only award-winning poetry but also her first novel, The Manningtree Witches, which won the Desmond Elliott prize in 2021. In it, she brought to life a suffocating vision of the witch trials in 17th-century Essex with a dazzling immediacy.
Her talent for reviving the past in sensuous detail is no less impressive in The Glutton. Blakemore takes Tarare’s life, recorded only in a medical paper, and puts the meat on the bones. But what meat it is. Blood drips from every page as she creates a banquet of gorgeously crafted, unexpected images. You’ll find yourself turning them over in your mind for days.
When we first meet Tarare, chained to a bed and dying in a Versailles hospital at the age of 27, he has become The Great Tarare, a grotesque monster more myth than man. But – and this is at the centre of this feast of a novel – he was also once an innocent boy who greets each day “with a smile as blank and open as a hilltop”, whose first kiss is “a night-blooming rose among the thorns of his small life”.
Born on the day his father died in a drunken brawl, Tarare grows up poor in a village near Lyon. His mother becomes a prostitute, then a wet nurse. The summers are bad – one year a heatwave cooks the fruit in the fields, so “every orchard smells like a compote” – and the winters worse. Yet Tarare finds beauty everywhere he looks. Then he acquires a stepfather of sorts, a salt-smuggler, who enriches his mother’s life and very nearly takes his. It is an appallingly brutal act of violence which forces him out of the village and, it is hinted, gives him his prodigious appetite.
He falls in with a band of travelling charlatans, whose leader becomes another father figure – and the first in a series of characters to exploit Tarare’s innocence and hunger for their own ends. As they journey through the parched and starving countryside towards Paris he is paraded as a freak show, earning his reputation as the Bottomless Man by eating almost anything for money. In the novel’s third act, he becomes a soldier of the revolution and finds himself in the hands of doctors whose interest in him turns out to be no less nefarious than the charlatan who sets him up as a circus turn.
This structure pins us in horror and drives the narrative: how does the kind boy who wonders about the dreams of frogs and horses, who mourns murdered doves and tries to save a tormented cat, turn into the cackling, lascivious monster who so horrifies the hospital nun?
The novel is a skilfully executed balancing act. We are revolted by Tarare but, like the nun, find plenty to pity in his tale. The language is a marvel. Blakemore’s skill as a poet is everywhere. She plants our faces so closely against the glass of the past that it feels at times unbearably vivid. Dawn is the “darkish, wet-skinned hour”. Food is baked into the fabric of the novel: the sky is “pink and grained with frost, like a sugar-dusted pastille”. The book teems with poems in miniature – often followed a beat later by the shock of the profane, or a knowing aside.
While his story seems almost impossible to believe now – it is still not clear, medically, what caused his desperate hunger – the way his appetite thrilled and titillated crowds in village squares certainly is. We remain in thrall to the grotesque and to the beautiful. The Glutton is both, and more: it demands our empathy. This is a book to be devoured – just not with your lunch.
The Glutton by A.K. Blakemore is published next Thursday (Granta Books, £14.99)