The Fig Eater BOOK review [Jody Shields]

Book Reviews
The Fig Eater BOOK review [Jody Shields]
Mar 1, 2000, 00:08

THE FIG EATER by Jody Shields; Little, Brown & Co., 2001

The Fig Eater is an engrossing book. Its charms lie not so much in the plot—the book is cast as a murder mystery that proffers likely suspects early on. Plot twists are few and not especially ingenious. The appeal of The Fig Eater lies in the background details that author Jody Shields supplies with wanton profligacy. Most of this material is entirely extraneous to the narrative and even the characters' development. But what emerges is an incredibly sensual and evocative picture of middle class life in Vienna at the turn of the last century.

Shields spends a lot of time describing the food, its preparation, and even the markets where basic raw ingredients are purchased. Stews, roasts, stuffings, myriad puddings, cakes, and assorted pastries. There's still more space devoted to the fare peculiar to particular classes of restaurants, coffee houses, street vendors and kiosks respectively—it's all portrayed as very vivid, intense, and not a little exotic. The author gives similar treatment to the architecture of Vienna, individual buildings and their functions and interior environments (the depiction of an arboretum and medical museum are especial strange and wonderful trips) as well as the overall cityscape, street lay-outs, parks, and outlying woodlands.

All these details are put into context and interpreted so that you get a sense of more than just the artifacts, you almost get a first hand sense of the culture that produced them. Moreover, you're given a glimpse of how societal conventions are woven through it all—how styles and the individual's right to sport them act as class signifiers for instance.

A different continent, a century away, involving people living the “good life”—not rich but solidly middle class. Very comfortable, very regimented. I must admit that the mis en scene is charmingly exotic, no less alien and novel than, say, pre-colonial Benares, or the capitol city of the second largest continent of that fourth planet orbiting Alpha Centauri.

While the plot is thin, there is a substantial textual thrust created and that revolves around the dynamic interaction between the world views of the Inspector (no name given, so he's reduced—or elevated depending on how you look at it—to an archetype) investigating the murder upon which the plot hangs, and the Inspector's wife Erzebet. He is all about logic, science, investigation and analysis. Erzebet, on the other hand is immersed in intuition, art and magick. She becomes interested in the murder case and mounts her own parallel investigation via her own means. While he is seeking scientifically verifiable fact, he seeks to let it manifest itself without his interference. This turns out to be his approach to police work in general, as well as in his home, social life as well as his sexual life with Erzebet. The results, across the board are extraordinary and exquisite.

I can't compare to a video game 'cause I don't play 'em but The Fig Eater is more engrossing and immersing an experience than any TV show or most films I've seen in the past two years. Bravissimo!

-Howard Wuelfing

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