BOOKS: Food for thought in Caroline Beecham's latest novel
REVIEW: AVID cook Maggie Johnson and her fiance planned to open a small country hotel. But that was before the war and now Maggie's running the canteen in a radio factory, making do as best she can with limited rations and an unsympathetic boss.
A friend suggests the frustrated Maggie apply to manage one of the British Restaurants being set up by the government - communal feeding kitchens offering low cost food to residents, ensuring they get one hot meal a day.
Thrifty Maggie is ideally suited to the job, but thwarted by a bureaucracy that doesn't reward her busy restaurant with more supplies when it proves popular - instead straining her already meagre rations.
Thankfully Maggie's meets Robbie, a 12-year-old who spends his days prowling the streets and Janek, a Polish refugee. The resourceful pair help Maggie set up a victory garden to help supply her restaurant, teaching her to break the rules in the process.
Maggie's a delightful and kind lead character and offset beautifully by the cheeky Robbie and pragmatic Janek. Set in 1941 amidst air raids, death and destruction it would be easy for this book and its narrative to depress readers; but Beecham skims the negatives and focuses instead on the generosity and resilience of the human spirit.
We're reminded that bravery exists in many forms and for Maggie it's standing up for her beliefs and battling the bureaucracy to ensure she's able to feed those who enter her restaurant each day.
English-born Australian-dwelling Beecham litters this book with scene-setting wartime hints about stretching your rations and references to many traditional English meals. There's even a collection of recipes at the end, featuring many favourites from Toad in the Hole to Rabbit Curry. Some of which may - ahem - be an acquired taste.
Despite the backdrop of WWII, Beecham keeps the tone light and serves up a sliver of romance and dollops of heart-warming hope. She also - deftly and subtly - educates readers about that time in our history. It may offer not-so-happy memories of wartime and its rationing for some, while enlightening those of us who've been unaffected or not had to go without.